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It was a three year gap between the release of “Liberator” and the next OMD album, “Universal.” I remember having a very difficult time finding a copy. In 1997, it was not just possible to buy CDs on the internet. Especially from other nations. Until PayPal came onto the scene, that was a very dicey proposition. I believe it was some time in 1997-8 that by then I had joined the Associates mailing list in the wake of Billy MacKenzie’s suicide and came across someone in Europe who wanted something I could provide, and I got them to swap me a CD of “Universal” for it. The CD finally arrived after several years of not seeing a copy for sale in any way, shape, or form. By this time the Sound City 2000 catalogs I had relied upon for the first half of the 90s had dried up. Goldmine was still there, but had been useless for several years by that point.
I noted the striking cover of water molecules was a huge improvement over the last cover and I noted that Peter Saville was credited with the concept that Area [their third OMD cover in a row] executed. When I finally popped it into the ÇD player, I was rewarded with the incredible title track to the album, right up front. With a slight wind chime loop in the deep background, the monolithic industrial throb of the long intro began. Then the anguished lead synth chimed in; a variant [and not the first] of the patch used on Karl Bartos’ “Kissing The Machine.” Choral patches added mystery to the already powerful dip back into the “Organisation” sound that was clearly being referenced here. In all honesty, the song was shaping up to be a darker sequel to “Stanlow.” Yes, that great! As my quickening pulse would attest, after a decade of indifference, OMD were back.
Then, about two minutes into the track, an echo of the drumbeat faded up and the track segued from the shadowy intro to the blinding light of the “pop” portion of the song. This had an expansive, rock like feel coming on the heels of the atmospheric intro. McCluskey’s personnel for this album were radically different from the first two OMD albums he’d helmed. Phil [Toyah] Spalding played bass with drums by session man Chuck Sabo. The robust female backing vocals [the best that OMD had by this point] were from Breda Dunne; a huge step forward from the trite BVs the last three albums had included. Synths and guitars were courtesy of Matthew Vaughan, but this track had no guitars. Better, it had synths taking the place of guitars! This actual band behind McCluskey gave the song a presence closer to that of Ultravox than typical OMD. Vaughan’s muscular pitch-bended solo in the middle eight was cut directly from the cloth of the Billy Currie Holy Vestments. Did I love this? Oh yeah, but I saved the best part for last!
What made this song even more exceptional were its lyrics. “Universal” was the sort of bold, atheist anthem that had been bubbling around the edges for about a decade [nice tries, XTC, Depeche Mode] but refined and concentrated into the kind of fearless, detached sentiment that makes me frankly get a little misty-eyed with its beauty.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white
Or the God that you choose to pray to
It doesn’t matter about the clothes you wear
Or which creator made you
We all bleed the same blood
We all need the same love
And when we die there’s no heaven above
It’s universal, it’s universal
It doesn’t matter who you think you are
You’re living and you know you feel it
It’s not important as to why we’re here
You know there is no reason” – “Universal”
After hearing this song, I came to the conclusion that this was one of the finest songs OMD had ever recorded. That it came ten years into a stretch of highly variable mediocrity by the band was all the more impressive.
Next: …Wild Mood Swings