Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark – Universal | 1996 – 2.5
[continued from previous post]
Andy McCluskey undoubtedly heard a compilation of African American gospel recordings released in 1994 by Smithsonian Folkways entitled “Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions Vol. I-IV.” There was a song called “Early My God Without Delay” by The Richard Allen Singers that McCluskey was obviously smitten with enough to write “The Gospel Of St. Jude,” which took this a cappella gospel recording which could have been recorded at any time in the 20th century, and had Andy sing lead over it with lyrics of his devising. The choir was obviously pumped up with reverb in the studio from the original recording and McCluskey chose the title to reflect the patron saint of lost causes, for a song that was about the futility of attaining happiness, according to the notes at the official OMD discography.
Words…cannot express …the complete wrongness of this song. It was a hugely fraudulent exercise that I am shocked that the Smithsonian gave permission to use their recording for. It was the last thing I ever wanted to hear OMD attempting. Literally last, because I would have put “Andy does hair metal” several positions ahead on a list that ended with “Andy leads an African American gospel choir” on the list of “catastrophic OMD ideas.” Thankfully, it was under 2:30 in length, but the damage it inflicted was substantial to an album side that had begun on such a stunning pinnacle.
Next was yet another 4:29 worth of self-flagellating cauldron of embitterment from the normally buoyant and chipper McCluskey. Having tried it first on “Sugar Tax” with “Was It Something I Said,” I daresay he perfected the approach here with “That Was Then.” The track smolders for its first two minutes with a solid methodical beat underpinning this angst until at the two minute mark, the dive-bombing guitars enter the mix [helpfully without pick scrapes] and McCluskey catches fire on this, yes, rock tune, before burning out for the coda which saw him singing like a completely spent force, mirroring the theme of disillusionment and decay inherent in the lyrics. He may do this sort of thing too often for my tastes, but I can certainly get behind the veracity of the sentiment as his delivery is completely believable.
But “believable” is not a word I’d ascribe to “Too Late” which followed. It was another McCluskey “end of the affair” number, which given the highly raw and personal emotional tenor of the surrounding material here, stuck out like a sore thumb. Worse, the arrangement to this one seemed to be completely lifted from “Every Breath You Take,” the tiresome übersmash by The Police; and this time without the creamy modal guitar line by Andy Summers, which at least was a saving grace for that song. The whole affair had a whiff of the “Crush” era at its worst. Think “Hold You.”
Thankfully, McCluskey came to his own rescue with “The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You.” This unabashed technopop number began with a blatant quote from the rhythm track from the “third movement”of “Autobahn” with the familiar warm throbbing beefed up with some synthetic percussion as McCluskey related the tale of the people he’d disappointed coming back to haunt him. A typical, piece of McCluskey melancholic introspection, but this time mated with deliciously incongruous ebullient technopop of Buggles caliber. When the string patches enter the song near the end, they add just the sort of heart-tugging, quintessential OMD melody normally squandered in a song like “Dreaming” finally placed in a much better setting. This one was mooted as a possible single, but the failure on the marketplace of second single “Universal” put an end to that notion. It was also one of two tracks on the album [the other being “Too Late” which was produced and mixed solely by McCluskey.
“if You’re Still In Love With Me” was an old song written with Paul Humphries following the “Pacific Age” era and it’s hard to believe that this one began its life as another OMD go reggae number, but the arrangement here was vastly different, and a rare case of “OMD Unplugged” as the sole accompaniment was the 12-piece string section as arranged by Anne Dudley. The sound here was surprisingly vibrant; showing the difference between actual breathing strings [arranged by a real pro] and the sampled ones they usually relied upon [see “La Femme Accident” et. al]. Sampled strings resemble a string section, but they are not a string section.
“New Head” was another, deeper dip into the pool of psychedelia that, being a Scallie, was probably aways latent in McCluskey’s makeup. This one really went places with a vector of the saffron-scented psychedelic approach as favored by Siouxsie + The Banshees on “Kiss Them For Me.” The same shuffle beat was used here finally makes me realize that I have no problems with the beat, within an Indian/dance context. The droning mantras of the song layer repeatedly, forming a ziggurat of psychedelia that is capped by the violently incongruous appearance of a yodeling chorus on song’s refrain. Yes! This was certainly thrilling stuff this late in the game for McCluskey.
The album concluded with the brief piano ballad, “Victory Waltz” wherein McCluskey indulges in a final bittersweet twist of the lyrical knife as he brought an ending to OMD with what would be the final song from the band for the foreseeable future. McCluskey noted that the lyrics referred to a relationship that was very nearly over as lyrics like:
“Come take me down to your victory waltz, and I will break your heart.
Gaze once again at the promise we made, that I have torn all apart.
And hold me now close to you.
As though we’re still pretending.
Hold me now close again.
This dream is almost ending.” – “Victory Waltz”
But these also feel like a metaphoric ending to OMD itself. Having begun the band with the best of intentions only to surprisingly succeed and thereafter descend into compromise and acrimony before continuing alone could not have felt good for him. The piano here was accompanied by the only OMD touch here; a choir patch. The OMD story did indeed end here since faced with an indifferent if not actually hostile promotional infrastructure, he chose to end the band after two albums of diminishing returns. Fortunately, this last stab corrected many of the ills of the preceding four albums even as it rarely stayed within the “OMD outlines.” Barring the singsong “Walking On The Milky Way,” the horrifying “The Gospel Of St. Jude,” and the facile “Too Late,” I felt at the time that this was a huge improvement in the band’s fortunes and an adequate high note for them to bow out… once again, on.
The title track astounded as one of the best ever OMD songs, which weighted the final rating of this up almost a half point by sheer dint of its brilliance. But even the sprawling tributaries of this record, even at their worst, reveal an artist intent on trying to write songs of a higher caliber than he had for many years, and succeeding at it. I may not specifically enjoy the Beatleish styling of “The Moon And The Sun” but as a song it is miles above “Stand Above Me” not to mention “Dollar Girl.” I have to admit that it still got stuck in my cranium, which counts for something.
Next: …The Aftermath
As ever with OMD (which ever version) it is always worth while searching out the B sides. In this case there were two, both of which appeared on the first Walking On The Milky Way cd single. What is surprising is why they were hidden away on a single rather than being included on the album as the are much stronger than some of them. First up is Matthew Street, another co-write with Karl Bartos and also a Beatles pastiche, though this time it makes sense as Matthew Street is where the club ‘Eric’s’ was situated where OMD played their early gigs, and which they have said is more important to them than the Cavern which is all anyone else is interested in. So a playful poke at the Fab Four. The other track is even better, The New Dark Age, which uses the backing track from Statues and creates an up to date masterpiece which openly reflects OMDs glory days.
By the way both Universal and Boy From the Chemist were up for being the second single with the decision being left to voting from OMD fans, and Universal won.
Richard Anvil – I had not heard of that anecdote where the fans picked the second single from “Universal!” I’m astounded by this, as I was shocked that it was even a single as it towered over the album and was far too meaningful to connect with a mass audience. We’ll get to examining some B-sides soon.
Continuing on with this painful album…
The Gospel Of St. Jude – contradictory “gospel” workout
That Was Then – A Bryan Adams-like song that tried, I MEAN REALLY TRIED, to recapture 1986
Too Late – more self parody – just very sad
The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You – with just a bit of editing, this could have been a great Pet Shop Boys song…hell the title is right up their alley…
If You’re Still In Love With Me – a chamber pop interpretation of what might have been a good OMD song 8 years earlier
New Head – a song with, gulp, wah wah guitar and Blancmange-esque Eastern musical motifs – throw the pasta up against the wall and some will likely stick
Victory Waltz – hmmmm
After Universal it was time. This album was just an “oh yeah, there’s a new OMD album” thought for me at the time. The next time either Andy or Paul would really come into my world would be Paul’s EP with his life partner Claudia Brücken as ONETWO in 2004. Andy’s career would head in a very different direction after ending OMD, but I was not in the least interested.
Echorich – Excellent call on the latent PSB qualities of “Chemist!” Now I want to hear that! Obviously, we did not see eye to eye on this one. With the bar as low as it had scraped with the prior two, “Universal” felt like real growth to this fan, as much as a track like “The Gospel Of St. Jude” stood as an ALL-TIME WORST by a favorite act. There had been some really extreme low points by acts I deeply loved [“UVOX” and “Street Fighting Years” stand as notable nadirs – and I’d take “UVOX” any day over the latter] but we can admit that neither of those train wrecks contained Midge or Jim singing over an old recording of a gospel choir.
One of the problems of how I approach writing this blog is that I often listen many times to the music in my car; composing criticism in my head that I can’t write down while driving for obvious reasons. In a perfect world, I would listen with pen and paper to make notes and give it my full attention, and then write a marvelous critique. In a perfect world, this would be my job. One of the things I had noticed [it stands out like a sore thumb in the song] while enduring “Too Late” while driving but completely forgot to mention while sitting at my desk during lunchtime actually writing, was how the arrangement for the song simply reeked of “Every Breath You Take!” It’s all I can hear now. I’ve edited the post from a few days ago to include this major point I neglected to make when push came to shove.