Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 61]

OMD – English Electric | 2013 – 3.5

In the “what were they thinking” sweepstakes of OMD’s career, there have been a few misses of obvious singles, and the latest in this category was the superb ballad “Helen Of Troy.” OMD fans were apoplectic in the OMD Forum that this one was not picked for a single release. The beat was a stately hybrid of motorik and waltz time; two of OMD’s go-to time signatures. The clean synth lines were minimal here and allowed McClucskey to float above the already airy song pointedly asking this Helen if she’s happy now even though she “cries all day, and cries all night.” All the while delivering a chorus that simply stated “because I cannot cry, ever again.”

The next track was definitely the high water mark for this album. “Our System” began [and ended] with sounds the band downloaded from a NASA website of a transducer on the Voyager deep-space probe converting interstellar magnetic fields to audio. Heady stuff and deeply in keeping with OMD sci-geek cred, but of course, the song only uses that as a jumping off point metaphor. Using the heightened isolation of a deep space probe to examine the interpersonal spaces, fraught with peril, which we all inhabit.

“Across the universe
We’re broken and we’re bleeding
Pointing to the stars, stolen by degree” – “Our System”

When McCluskey stopped singing three quarters the way through the song, the last word here was given to drummer Malcolm Holmes, who offered a profound and eloquent drum solo that ultimately made this song a close relative of the similarly awe-inspiring “Joan Of Arc [Maid Of Orleans].” The choral patches that joined him in making a powerful statement of intent really took bius strip song back to the 1981 mindset they had right before making “Dazzle Ships,” which was primarily the model for “English Electric,” but not here.

It was next time for a throwback song. When the band re-used two 1981 B-sides for their 1983 “Dazzle Ships” album, it was seen as a somewhat shocking measure of something just not done on a regular basis. When Andy reached back 20 years for the tune he co-srote with Karl Bartos for the latter’s “Esperanto” album, no one seemed to mind. The new version of “Kissing The Machine” features Paul Humphrey’s partner, Claudia Brücken singing the bridge in German, but otherwise hews closely to the sound of the original version. The wailing synth lead on that song from 1993 was replicated here, and by 2013, was something of a fall-back synth patch that OMD has relied upon a great deal since. It seems to pop up a great deal.

One of the four vignettes [one can’t quite think of them as songs] was the first thing teased from the album in the form of an animated video way up front of its release. “Decimal” was  like a digital Möbius strip that piled on techno-anxiety over the course of about 90 seconds before leveling off to move forward. The rat’s nest of notifications that comprised it were deeply ironic in that they were about heralding communication, yet they only served to bury the notion of actual connection under a hellish array of datanoise.

The last album lacked a Paul Humphreys song, but this one had the missing element, but “Stay With Me” was the weakest track here. I like it a little better with five years of listening to it under my belt, but of all the songs here, this was the one that underwhelmed. The tendency of commercial phase† OMD to indulge in schlagerpop for their not insubstantial German audience, has been somewhat unfortunate.

The melody was a bit precious, but it was ultimately the lyrics that undermined this song the most for me. Andy McCluskey and James Watson had written the music in the 90s but had never used it and Humphreys made it his own with lyrics that seemed to reference a breakup with talk of “if only I could stop those tears” and “stay, why don’t you stay?” As it turned out, Andy McCluskey took me to task over this opinion on the OMD Forum, citing the song as actually being about Humphreys losing his daughter after his divorce from his wife Maureen back in the 90s. Fair enough. Clarity from the artist never hurts, but I still stick to my opinion on the merits of the song itself.

Things bounced back dramatically with the second single from the album. “Dresden” seemed, on the face of it, to be another song about a devastating war history event, like “Enola Gay,” but that was just a powerful metaphor. Here, McCluskey compared the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany to the devastation caused by a breakup. Most likely, his then-recent divorce.

“Torn the children far away and
Burned the house where they once played
This terrifying wall of pain
Is pouring down upon me once again” – “Dresden”

The lyrics were visceral as they really put across the agony of the split in the most vivid of terms. Musically, the song was a complete throwback to the classic OMD sound with not only an instrumental chorus [!], but the bass guitar McCluskey plied the tune with gave it a hint of the “Enola Gay” bass line even as the topline melody and synth referenced The Tornadoes 1962 proto-technopop hit “Telstar,” which OMD had covered in their earliest period. That had never been released, but the original version of their website once hosted a file of it for listening. “Dresden” was one of OMD’s most powerful singles and the remix by John Foxx + The Maths made the fantastic song even stronger.

The last of the “vignettes” here was the most substantial. “Atomic Ranch” took its name from the Mid-Century Modern design magazine [see: Right], and the conceit of the track was a lament for the ultramodern [and very bright] future that never materialized. In a way, it was the succinct thematic précis of the whole album. All of the vocals were synthetic text-to-voice synthesis as the layers of sound overlapped and the tension built up until, in the album’s biggest concession to the “glitch aesthetics” that Andy was playing up in the buildup to the writing of the album on the OMD Forum really only came to bear as the track suddenly melted down at its end into squelchy tech-noise. It was telling that the lyrics pined for a “perfect life” with two kids, a yard, and a robot wife to make it all perfect. In that sense, the revival of “Kissing The Machine” made a chilling kind of sense.

Then the album served up its final meditation with the bleakest of songs that McCluskey had ever written. “Final Song” was built on a mild-mannered rhythm box samba intercut with female voice count off and “un-huh” samples that enhanced the Latin sound as Andy crooned the lyrics as gently as he could, insuring maximum dissonance between the genteel music bed and his impossibly grim lyrics, which only offered the direst of scenarios.

“Burn the pins in the voodoo doll
Dripping lies and vitriol
Cursing the years that you stayed too long
Singing the words of the final song” – “Final Song”

“At night when everything is quiet
The old house seems to breathe a sigh
Lonely house, lonely” – “Lonely House”

The coda of the song was sampled from the song “Lonely House” as sung by Abbey Lincoln from 1959 [see Left]. The song was written by Kurt Weill and poet Langston Hughes and McCluskey had been obsessed for almost 20 years with ways to incorporate songs of African American singers with his music; usually to ill effect [see: “The Gospel Of St. Jude” and “Sometimes”], but in this instance the effect came off without a hitch. The haunting jazz song used as the coda added a contrasting pensive mood to the violent imagery of the verses.

The placement of this song following the devastating lamentation that was “Dresden” allowed for it to be the dark calm after the storm. The writer was alone in an empty house with only his dark mood for company. The subtexts of loneliness, painful divorce and separation from lover and children not only flow just below the surface of almost all of the songs here, they occasionally spill into the light, imparting a painful emotional recoil from the hurt it documents.

This was my reading of it, since I was aware of the divorce issues that had occurred prior to its recording, but when asked directly about it in the OMD Forum, McCluskey admitted that it was the inescapable fabric running through the entire album as its painful subtext. It did make for a very coherent piece of art from the group. While at the time I lamented the sonics of the soft synth recording and even its somewhat brickwalled mastering on CD, with time, I have come to put those issues to the side and appreciate this album for the power and strength of its message. It certainly represented a consolidation and forward movement from “History of Modern,” with the closest thing to a misstep being “Stay With Me,” which certainly at least fit the thematic unity here while being a fundamentally stronger piece of music than the three poor tunes on “History Of Modern.” I did not listen to this incessantly as I did “History Of Modern” but that album had brought back OMD from limbo with ten strong tunes and was better than anything done since “Dazzle Ship” to these ears. At the time of “English Electric’s” release, Andy was of the opinion that OMD had plateaued and could do no better, but I think that he was wrong. Their next album would put even this one in the shade, but not before some archaeology of OMD’s roots to be explored further occurred.

Next: …Disaster Strikes

† I maintain everything done after “Dazzle Ships” as being from OMD in their “commercial phase.”

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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4 Responses to Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 61]

  1. Echorich says:

    I completely agree that OMD.”COMM” starts after Dazzle Ships.
    I have to say I disagree with your assessment of Stay With Me. It think it goes quite a long way to improve upon all of OMD’s more “Precious Pop” moments from their past. The way the song seems to enter and exit as if from some sort of “synth”-etic ethers enhances it’s presence on English Electric.
    English Electric has a number of songs, Stay With Me included, that manage to stay with me…I seem to have immediately learned the lyrics – like I used to as a teenager – and can call up the songs in my mind effortlessly. It is certainly among their Top 5 album releases and with Dresden, Metroland and Helen Of Troy managed to write new classics to add to their Canon.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – As an aside, you mention “learning lyrics like I used to as a teenager.” It reminds me of something interesting. I never learned lyrics as a teen. All my life I never seemed to pay too much attention to lyrics. It was the music only that engaged with me. Then, when I found myself with a long commute to work off the last 14 years. I did something that I had never find before. I started singing along with the music. Once I did this and got both hemispheres of my brain engaged at once with music, I found my retention of lyrics skyrocketed.


  2. Echorich says:

    I have to believe, and I’m no scientist, that unlocking the memory banks with music has to be stimulating to our brains as we age. The fact that I can remember the lyrics to WIre’s Map Reference 41ºN 93ºW, The Jam’s Eton Rifles or The Voice by Ultravox sometimes amazes me, but usually just makes me smile with satisfaction. What it also does is open floodgates of past memories, reminding me where I come from and how far I’ve gone.


  3. SimonH says:

    Echorich, you’ve managed to sum up a lot about the power of music in only six lines!


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