Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark wanted to be a romantic, soulful version of Kraftwerk’s electronic pop. They started out shining, with great singles, but little by little the flame went out, without them having reached the consistency and transcendence of their German model. Nevertheless, they have various immortal moments to their name, the greatest of them being having composed “Enola Gay”, a generational hymn that has withstood the passing of time, and which summarises the fundamental role that 80’s synth-pop played in the humanising of electronic music in just over three minutes: pop for eternity. Fourteen years have passed since OMD –or shall we say, what was left of them– put out “Universal”, that did no justice to their legacy, which should be extended to cover all of their 90’s discography. Twenty-four years have passed since the classic Liverpool band put out “The Pacific Age”, an LP that placed them at the peak of their fame, right at the time of greatest populist effervescence.
“History of Modern” obviously can’t stand up to such a capital work as “Architecture & Morality”, which includes “Joan of Arc” and “Souvenir”, two other pieces that have earned immortality on their own merits. In this comeback album, they also don’t dare to go back to the experimental flirtation that turned out to be so costly for them when they made “Dazzle Ships”, as they confessed at the time. But they can rest easy, deep down: the return of OMD to our lives is a turn towards the past, both theirs and our own, without eccentricities. As if time had stood still, they are back with all of the consequences of this decision, both positive and negative.
Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes can step out onstage with their heads held high when they start their new tour. They could live off of their income, off of the echoes of their spotless, creative golden age, but “History of Modern” wants to offer something more, new songs that seek to find a place next to the old ones. It’s a little bit of a grab bag: if we had to evaluate these thirteen songs from listening to the first single, “If You Want It”, which returns to the immediacy of “Walking on the Milky Way”, the disappointment could be major: it’s too obvious that McCluskey has spent the last several years being a hired producer for prefabricated pop groups like Atomic Kitten. This baggage had to come out somewhere (the same thing happens with “Pulse”, which doesn’t fit in with the rest even though it has a devastating erotic R&B chorus). But the rest of what we’ll find on the album, ladies and gentlemen, is totally different.
An example of this return to the essence and the perfection of classic electro-pop are the two parts of “History of Modern”, in which OMD returns to the synthetic baths of their best work, the early work; there is also “Sister Marie Says”, a song that had been gathering dust since the publication of “Universal” because its similarity to the melodic pattern of “Enola Gay” was too suspicious. One can say the same thing about one of the best cuts, “New Holy Ground” –Humphreys’ only contribution lyrically, along with “Green”– which, although it reminds me of the B-side of “Locomotion” (“The Avenue”), it is really a well-done master class on the synth-pop ballad.
It is also a highly nostalgic album, full of tributes. In “New Babies: New Toys” they design an electro sound similar to that of the best moments of New Order –the lyrics are also acidic, launching a fierce criticism of Simon Cowell and the moral contamination that this man has introduced into the world of consumer pop, while in “Bondage of Fate” and “International” they return to the model of the desolate song that worked so well for them in the 80’s. But it is their tributes to Kraftwerk, their robotic heroes, which carry the heaviest retro load in the motorised “RFWK” –which we imagine means “Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl”– and “The Right Side”, the last song on the album, an eight-minute piece of candy that ends with a sample of “Europe Endless”. And that’s all, folks. We could tell them off for not having experimented a little more, or for not having let good old Humphreys open his mouth –the one who wears the pants in OMD is McCluskey, however much they all try to deny it– but nobody will able to question that the group, completely restored, is giving us an album today that could once again catapult them to the head of the pack of pop with keyboards. A few years ago, nobody would have bet on them. Now, OMD can shut up malicious mouths. Experience pays off.
Sergio del Amo