Blog 544: OMD — English Electric

When I was a young man, and I was first introduced to Dazzle Ships, I remember taking my parents’ original vinyl to my gran’s house so that I could listen to it, because we didn’t have a record player anymore. I had absolutely no conception of the possibility that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark might one day reform, let alone produce new material. It was just one of those things that was in the past. Gone. Over. Finito. The mosquito trapped in amber with its precious payload of saurian DNA.

And then they came back.

Prologue: History of Modern

History of Modern was an astonishing comeback. It perhaps meanders a little bit, and isn’t quintissentially “experimental”, but overall it is an extremely strong album. The History of Modern suite of Part I, Part II and Parts III & IV is surely the pinnacle, but the extremely ballsy Pulse (ballsy because it’s clearly a song constructed for a late-teen girl group but McCluskey sings it anyway with great panache) and the foot-stomper Sister Marie Says provide more conventionally driving counterpoints.

The two simplest words
In any language
Are “yes”… and “no”.

Full of recognisable quote-unquote “pop” songs, History of Modern was almost a greatest hits of all the years that OMD hadn’t been around; their take on the pop phenomenon and fashions that they’d missed out on (plus a little more, natch).

Even so, it was that B-side History of Modern (Parts III & IV) that gave the most chills (especially first heard as a gig opener) — because it’s not Just Another Unconventional Song, but one of those little vignettes reminiscent of the masterpiece that is Dazzle Ships. What were we to think; was this a one-off, a sop to the hardcore? Or was this indicative of what would come?

History of Modern

English Electric

The build-up to English Electric began with a few teaser releases. A little animated video appeared on the Book of Faces and other social media, accompanying the track Decimal.  What a delightfully strange piece! Then came the same again for Atomic Ranch, whose animation and, indeed, speech-synthesised sentiments continue to remind me of the Fallout games, with their world of 50s idealism gone bad. I love the way the line “I want a future so bright that it burns my eyes” disintegrates into the hauntingly simple “I want a future”, plaintively stated in the background.

To start hyping your new album with two tracks of that ilk? Yes, I began to hope that this was going to be It. Dazzle Ships for the modern age. Not more of the same (because there’s no point in eternal remixes and reboots), but something new mined from the same rich vein.

The future that you anticipated has been cancelled.
Please remain seated and wait for further instructions.

Metroland appeared as the first evidence of traditional songcraft. It has been said a hojillion times already by more eloquent music reviewers than I that Metroland is simply Kraftwerk’s Europe Endless reimagined. I think that’s doing it a disservice, so I’m going to go one step further and say that it’s Kraftwerk done better. While Kraftwerk provided excellent foundations, they always seemed to me to be missing some vital spark — the vital spark the OMD have always been able to ensnare. OMD’s lyrics and vocals captivate while Kraftwerk’s roboticisms can only mildly enthuse.

Night Café was published not long after Metroland and sealed the deal. People always like to dismiss Dazzle Ships as a pile of wierdness that they just can’t get their ears around, but they forget that the strange little experimental tracks are, as I call them above, vignettes — little fragments that book-end some absolutely unstoppable tunes. Genetic Engineering, Telegraph, International, The Romance of the Telescope, Silent Running, Radio Waves, Of All The Things We’ve Made… Together with the unconventional gaps, Dazzle Ships is an awe-inspiring whole. Night Café is one of those songs that once again truly glitters amongst the strange monuments, a modern classic with the most achingly beautiful central melody I’ve heard for a long time.

Maybe English Electric is a little friendlier than Dazzle Ships. While Please Remain Seated, Decimal and Atomic Ranch bring up the purely experimental side, there are others that blur the line — The Future Will Be Silent is halfway between a real song and an experimentral, while Our System is a real song melded with sounds recorded by the Voyager space probes…

The rest of the album is much more easily defensible. We’ve mentioned Metroland and Night Café already, but Humphreys-led Stay With Me with its slightly sinister intro and the obligatory floor-filler-with-melancholy-lyrics Dresden are equally deserving of note. Is that our four singles?

Even so, I like the little experimentrals. I think they add something and, incomprehensible as it may be to some, I think they sound good anyway. This is not an album by the OMD who, fresh from reunion and greatest hits tours, cleared the decks with some strong but fairly “safe” songs in History of Modern. This is not the OMD that seemed to almost guiltily hide their experimental edges as B-sides behind catchy façades while they stepped back into the limelight. This is OMD once again returned to the fullest extent of their powers, unafraid to push the boundaries right into space. And really, that’s the OMD we always loved the most.

The Future Will Be Silent presents the question “where is the paradise that was promised?”

The answer is clear — the paradise that was promised has arrived at last, and it is called English Electric.

English Electric

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