Even veteran players can benefit from a dress rehearsal.
That is the lesson one can take from History of Modern, the 2010 comeback album from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. That album was the first in 20 years to feature both OMD co-founders, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, with original auxiliary members Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes in tow as well. History of Modern was presented as a return to the band’s early ’80 creative peak. While it did feature glimpses of classic OMD sounds filtered through a 21st-century lens, it also was mired in the less substantial radio-pop of the last couple “solo” OMD albums McCluskey released in the ’90s. In other words, the mark was an honorable one, but History of Modern missed as often as a hit.
English Electric fares much better. It is more focused and concise, and like the best OMD albums it maintains a consistent theme and feel, though the individual songs take on a variety of moods and approaches. The theme, as McCluskey and Humphreys have expressed it, is how 20th-century utopian ideals of progress and technology have broken down and ultimately led to disappointment, disillusion, and the need for consolation. Heady ideas, sure, but ones that should be familiar to anyone who has spent time with any of OMD’s first five albums.
In particular, Architecture and Morality (1981) and Dazzle Ships (1983) seem to be the primary touchstones here. Fitting targets, as the former represented the band’s worldwide commercial peak and the latter has in recent years been re-valued as a bold, ahead-of-its-time combination of popcraft and technology. English Electric is something less than these monumental achievements, but it is also something more.
At long last, the band has re-discovered that their synthesizers and electronics are most effective in the context of guitars, bass, and drums. To this end, McCluskey breaks out his bass on “Night Café” and “Dresden”, two of English Electric‘s most purely pop tracks. And when Holmes’ martial drums break out into the coda of “Our System”, they’re almost as thrilling as they were on “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)” all those years ago. Yet, English Electric still sounds too clean, too clinical, antiseptic at times. No matter how many organic instruments and vintage synth sounds are employed, you never quite lose the feeling there is a laptop lurking just outside the frame. A big part of the genius of those early albums is the way they made cutting-edge technology sound timeworn and dusty. You could almost say they were proto-Steampunk that way. English Electric doesn’t really recapture that feeling.
But another big part of OMD’s early genius is how their music evoked a harrowing, dystopian future and yet simultaneously comforted you about it. And this is a tricky balance English Electric succeeds in striking. Lead track and single “Metroland” is inspired by the alienation produced by its namesake London suburban areas, which were constructed circa the 1920s. As classic, Kraftwerk-inspired synth arpeggios intertwine, the simple yet gorgeous synth melody surges over the rhythm like a sunrise cutting through dank English fog. The overbearing kick drum is grossly misplaced, but “Metroland” still sounds like a eulogy that ultimately leads to hope. Its seven-minute running time isn’t a second too long. “Helen of Troy” joins Joan of Arc as an unlikely subject for a sympathetic pop song. Despite the obvious nod to the past, it still piques your interest while hitting a melodic sweet spot. And the trio of sound-collage vignettes, while they are sequels of sorts to similar pieces on Dazzle Ships, are updated to encompass modern socially-networked, mobile society.
English Electric goes beyond a rehash of the glory days, though, in a couple of ways. For one, it recognizes that the fact OMD’s mid-’80s and early ’90s albums were more commercially oriented did not mean they were necessarily bad. So, while “Night Café” may sound corny at first, its infectiousness and lack of guile eventually strike you as fresh and fun. As with much of English Electric, McCluskey’s impassioned performance and undiminished voice play a big part, making up for any clumsiness in the lyrics. And for the first time in a quarter century, Humphreys sings on an OMD album as well. His “Stay With Me” is more “(Forever) Live and Die” than “Souvenir”, but that means it is still a sincere, catchy, warmly atmospheric love song. And, just at the end of the album, OMD include a twist like something they have never done before. “Final Song” uses a vintage electronic organ bossanova in the manner of the band’s early material, but then adds eerie synths; breathy, almost erotic samples; and an operatic, haunting, female-sung section. Amazing.
How good is English Electric? Well, not to sound trite, but, while it is not the best OMD album, it is the best OMD album in at least 29 years. “What does the future sound like?” a voice whispers on “The Future Will Be Silent”. Three decades into an accomplished career, OMD still venture to ask that question, and their quest at answering it still yields singularly evocative results.