[1 October 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Over the past few years, OMD have really set the table for a smashing comeback. First came the well-received reunion shows, featuring the band’s “classic” four-piece lineup performing their classic material. Then came the concerts with symphony orchestras and an art installation with famed graphic designer Peter Saville. Throughout all this, the band realized their music, particularly their more experimental early ‘80s material, had undergone a critical revival.
In their native UK especially, the lasting impression of OMD had been of the band that sold its creative soul to the USA with “If You Leave”, then teased with a smash pop album, Sugar Tax, before fading into irrevocable irrelevance and disappearing. Over the intervening years, though, albums like Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships were dug up and appreciated for the beautiful, haunting, influential pop art they always were. The inevitable re-issues of these albums were very well-received.
OMD have done their best to present History of Modern as a de-facto follow-up to Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships. Months before its release, all the signifiers were in place. The classic lineup of leaders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys along with old hands Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes, back in the studio for the first time since 1988. The willfully pretentious album title, and two songs with the same name. The iconographic, Saville-designed sleeve, treated as an event on par with the release of the album itself.
Now for the hard part. It seemed natural, taken for granted, really, that History of Modern would at the very least sound like classic-era OMD. But wait a minute. McCluskey, who helmed OMD alone during the ‘90s and does the bulk of the songwriting here, has always been ambivalent about the band’s modest commercial success. As OMD-influenced Depeche Mode conquered the world, McCluskey had to make do with a few British hits and the odd European success. Prior to the band’s reforming, he claimed he regretted Dazzle Ships’ being so experimental. He wanted another massive hit like Architecture & Morality had been. However good or lousy they were, McCluskeys’s trio of ‘90s OMD albums were nothing if not unabashedly commercial.
On History of Modern, you can hear OMD trying to straddle the line between the artful moodiness longtime fans have been led to expect, and the pop sensibilities that might grab some airplay. It’s like the band have created a pretty-good “classic”-sounding OMD album and then injected it with a bunch of random detritus that was lying around McCluskey’s flat. There’s enough here to warrant the inevitable “best album since…” claims, for sure. McCluskey gets out all his frustrations on “New Babies: New Toys”, a scathing attack on the ready-made music industry, complete with fuzz guitar, pounding drums, and a satisfying burst of energy and confidence. Throughout the album, his nasally voice remains a singular, emotive instrument.
The two title tracks are easily the high points here. On “History of Modern (Part I)”, McCluskey describes a post-apocalypse world: “Everyone you lost and saved / Nothing will remain / Cradle or grave”, a shimmering analog synth duet providing the chorus. As the trademark choral voices soar and the low end pulses along, you can’t quite tell whether the band are dreading or welcoming this state. Part II deals with the emotional fallout, McCluskey warning “The last mistake / You ever make / Thinking modern’s new forever”, the atmosphere again both stark and expansive. At the other end of the album, closer “The Right Side” uses an affecting synth arpeggio and those choral voices again to convey the pain of children caught in a divorce. At their best, OMD have always seemed to be nostalgic for a future that hadn’t even passed yet, simultaneously yearning and lamenting. The best parts of History of Modern capture this feeling better than anything the band has done in 25 years. Even lesser, more contemplative tracks like “New Holy Ground” and “Bondage of Fate” get the mood right.
But the bafflingly lame parts of History of Modern threaten to undo the album all together. Single “If You Want It” manages to strike a nice balance between the OMDs of 1981 and 1996, as McCluskey doles out romantic clichés over an arrangement that’s just too well-crafted, too pleasing to resist. But what to make of the electronic handclaps and faux-house rhythm of “The Future”? It sounds like a Republic-era New Order reject. And the smart money says McCluskey originally wrote the would-be sleazy “Pulse” for one of the girl-pop bands he mentored last decade. It would make a great Britney or Black Eyed Peas track, but isn’t this the kind of crunky trash “New Babies” rails against?
Ironically, McCluskey and Humphreys have made a crucial mistake in over-stressing the electronic elements of their sound. The synths sound great, but a lot of OMD’s appeal and uniqueness was always the dynamics and interplay between those synths and the live bass, drums, and occasional guitar. Those dynamics are almost totally absent from History of Modern. Holmes gets a couple fills in, but otherwise the low end is handled by the same types of machine rhythms from the Sugar Tax era. In an attempt to sound more contemporary, did the band fall into the very trap they warned about?
Maybe the expectations for History of Modern were too high. But if so, OMD are as much to blame as anyone. They set the table for a full-on renaissance, then stopped a couple courses short. With judicious programming, the best two-thirds of History of Modern will give you just enough of that old OMD magic to warrant a purchase. The problem is, it’s also just enough to make the rest of the album break your heart.