Like Spirit and World Be Gone before it, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s latest album takes a swing at the chaotic socio-political climate of 2017, in a fashion best described as being nothing short of ham-fisted. Unlike Depeche Mode and Erasure, however, Andy McClusky and Paul Humphreys keep their eye on the ball musically, making for a record that is, ultimately, affectless, but still a whole lot of fun to listen to.
On the whole, veteran groups of Synth Britannia have aged quite badly. Once upon a time, their consistently hackneyed and indelicately pretentious lyrics were supported by synthesiser wizardry, suavely produced by the underdog dab hands of the day’s desks, and packaged exquisitely. Put short: it never mattered that Ultravox had nothing to say – because they did so beautifully. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark lost their way around the same time as everyone else – c.1990. Early digital synthesisers stripped new wave recordings of their warmth; the improved quality of cheap production anonymously undermining the charming handiwork of, say, Martin Hannett or Conny Plank. The style outgrew itself, ambition faltered, and naturally, the quality suffered. The effect of this is most observable in the mainstream: Britpop came and synth-pop went.
Across their last few albums, OMD have bounced back, returning to a much-missed analogue sound at a time when digital emulation has finally caught up with our moaning heartstrings. Now that Roland, for example, can faithfully recreate a notoriously unreliable analogue synth like the System-100, but in digital, the original stimulus for using digital instruments has evolved and the best of both worlds is now not just achievable, but very affordable.
Tonally then, the Punishment of Luxury represents the peak of this second wind, with glittering and squelchy keyboards that recall the best electronic textures of the 1980s. Better still, the bright songwriting of the band’s late-‘80s period is the underpinning tool at work, so it’s almost as though the listener is getting a second chance to progress more naturally – Dazzle Ships’ textures, straight through into Junk Culture’s sensibilities (and all without that latter record’s flatness). You’re even occasionally treated to a slice of early-OMD sentimentality; dark-wave nuggets like Precision & Decay recall the contemplative Genetic Engineering, while Ghost Star vaguely touches at the ambient dynamism of The Messerschmitt Twins.
This backward-reach for ‘80s pop saves OMD from the uber-sincerity that cripples their contemporaries. When Depeche Mode and Erasure eschewed giddy nostalgia for middle-aged anger, their records became broken equations. The music – mediocre in quality and totally lacking identity – failed to distract us, and now, with crap lyrics constituting the main event, the albums were… well… crap. There is an argument to suggest that bad lyrics needn’t exist at all – and whilst that might be objectively true, any follower of Synth Britannia and its post-punk legacy is (pardon the pun) punishingly aware of how integral a cock-eyed approach to human emotion is in this genre. It’s a core facet, and the fact that a band like Depeche Mode will throw its signature keyboards out of the window before upping their lyric game, is, I think, testament to that. They come close – every now and again, McCluskey oversteps the mark with an expletive or an unforgivably awkward metaphor, but these missteps are few and far between.
Throughout The Punishment of Luxury, OMD instead focus on the mutual infatuation with Kraftwerkian principles – songs like Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang, and the lead single Isotype, employ twinkling arpeggios and fat, growling oscillators, expertly reminiscing early synth LPs like Autobahn and Radioactivity, and providing, in the process, an acceptable boundary for their clumsy wordplay. Elsewhere, the new format OMD ‘stomper’ is brilliantly deployed: the opening title track might have a gloriously major Architecture & Morality riff, but its rhythm bounds aggressively forward, harking back to bassy dance hits like Desireless’ seminal Voyage Voyage. The record also balances quiet, slow, loud and fast moments very well; the varied track-listing keeps the listener suspended between ballads, potential pop hits and musique concrete textural experiments with early twentieth century French mounted machine-guns. Yeah.
The entire thing is also boxed up wonderfully. Part of the band’s late-period renaissance has been an authentic approach to the consideration of their music as a physical art form. Graphic design legend Peter Saville renews his title as mainstay, returning here to curate a plethora of alternate covers, box-sets and even individual covers for the album’s three 12” single releases, itself a sweet gesture of the period its music so clearly covets.
A consistent work in terms of tone and quality, The Punishment of Luxury makes it its business to produce over-reaching sentiments set to excellently programmed electronic music. Its self-awareness is somewhat ‘kaput’, but to be honest (and in my estimations anyway), that’s really just par for the course.