A splendid return to form for the reunited 80s electropop trailblazers
You’d imagine that after three-and-half decades, album releases in double figures, and umpteen hits all over the show, another OMD album would feel a bit, well, isn’t it time to quit, lads? If you give OMD the benefit of the doubt and call the first five albums, up to and including 1984’s ‘Junk Culture’, an excellent innings, you wouldn’t be far wide. And because of their electronic music trailblazing, the music history committee would probably agree to write-off everything beyond that, being in the most part aimed at a conservative American audience.
So when 2010’s ‘History Of Modern’ brought together the classic OMD line-up for the first time since Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper walked out on the waspish Andy McCluskey in 1989, the goodwill had clearly returned, but sadly not quite the tunes. You’d think then, having had a trial run at the reunion, that ‘English Electric’, their 12th studio long player, would be more of the same and they’d repeat until everyone gave up and went home.
How wrong can you be?
The first thing that strikes you about ‘English Electric’ is it embraces the same themes that have run through OMD’s finest work (dystopian future, historical bints, love, A-bombs), but there’s something else, an insistent tap-tap-tapping you can’t quite put your finger on at first. The intro, ‘Please Remain Seated’, gives little away, while the excellent first single, ‘Metroland’, which clocks in at over seven minutes, sets out the stall nicely, with its bass drum fizzing away underneath trademark OMD chromium twinkle and bright white melody.
But then it happens. That insistent tap-tap-tapping shows itself. Right at the end of the gentle sway of ‘Night Café’, the third track. As it fades, there’s a familiar hiss – the hiss that kicks off OMD’s debut single ‘Electricity’. Can’t be… can it? Ghosts in the machine, right? Maybe it’s just our nostalgia.
Then it happens again. ‘Helen Of Troy’, a big sister to ‘Joan Of Arc’, and ‘Dresden’, a song about the WWII blanket bombing that demolished the entire German city and a sequel to ‘Enola Gay’. You can even hear the faintest footprint of the famous dugga-dugga-dugga ‘Enola Gay’ refrain in the outro. There’s also the delicious choir-fuelled ‘Stay With Me’, with its echo of ‘Souvenir’ and even a cap doff at New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ that has us hearing words that aren’t even there: “If only I could stop them falling / I get down on my knees and pray”.
‘English Electric’ is a reminder that OMD were the blueprint for so much of the warm electropop that followed and yes, perhaps it is just ghosts of sounds making us think credit where credit’s due. But this lot knew what they were doing then and they really know what they’re doing now. This is deliberate, it’s so subtle, but the thing is, the more you listen, the better it gets. And we’ve not even mentioned the wobbly Theremin-like swoops of ‘Kissing The Machine’, co-written with Kraftwerker Karl Bartos, or quite how big ‘Our System’ is. Olympics big. A year earlier and it would’ve accompanied those young torchbearers lighting the flame.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is about harking back to the glory years, though. It’s not a return to anything. OMD invented this. This is the sound of progress.