Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s 2010 album History Of Modern, their first studio album in 14 years, felt very much within the established oeuvre of the beloved ’80s act. For all its glossy synthpop merits, it followed a successful ‘comeback’ tour with a perfunctory bit of further nostalgia.
But is nostalgia such a bad thing? Even during their ’80s imperial phase, OMD were already rifling through a schoolboy’s pocketbook notion of history, cherry-picking vignettes of bittersweet rhapsody to put to a chorus of synthetic experimentalism. One of the intrinsic joys of English Electric then is how much it plays as a checklist of those very same established OMD tropes. A sprawling seven-minute epic… (Metroland) – Check. An iconic female figure from history… (Helen of Troy) – Check. Reference to Allied bombings in WWII… (Dresden) – Check. There’s even a return to the bite-size snippets of Dazzle Ships’ music-collage in the likes of Atomic Ranch and The Future Will Be Silent.
Much has been made of the debt OMD pay to Kraftwerk – indeed, lead singer Andy McCluskey has become a sort of go-to authority on the German innovators of late, popping up on pretty much every radio show going to muse on their recent Tate Modern shows. And while the reference points on OMD’s new record are plain to see, it’s important to also consider the album outside of the considerable shadow cast by the Teutonic synth giants. It is called English Electric, after all.
Helen Of Troy is typical of the album’s finer moments, resounding with those quintessentially British sensibilities ’80s synth groups seem to have distilled as a fine art. Bakelite, fuzzy old TV sets, and dreams of a nuclear-powered future – it’s all here, scattered amongst the reedy old keyboard lines and hissing drum machine.
Stay With Me is dreamy, single-worthy stuff, crystalline washes of synthesiser revolving in that hallowed, church-like atmosphere that has always befitted OMD so well. And then comes Dresden, a successor to Enola Gay if ever we’ve heard one – all low slung bass and shiny, pumped up hooks that couldn’t sound more like a neon-drenched ’80s retro night if they tried.
There’s a fine line between being true to your original selves and crafting a record you think will fulfil fan desires. Although, come to think of it, if more bands followed that methodology, there’d probably be far fewer ‘difficult second albums’. But this is no second album – rather, it’s OMD’s 12th, and as such, benefits from an experience and wisdom that unfurls within the songs like a vintage bouquet. If this is a compilation of continued fan service though – in which the band themselves become their own fanboys – it’s more than just a CGI touch up of the ‘classic’ OMD sound. For all the self-replication of their big hits, English Electric’s highlights remain their own records, essential partners to the originals as opposed to feeble imitations.
That English Electric is a finer album than History Of Modern is without question – albeit an album that lacks some of rawness and unabashed feckless attitude of its predecessor. English Electric is a ‘constructed’ effort from start to finish, and wears that veneer with pride. But most importantly, more than any recent effort from Pet Shop Boys, Erasure or Human League, it fits seamlessly in with their original creations. This is no re-tooled re-envisioning for the modern age – as History Of Modern was – this is OMD through and through. Cut English Electric open and it’d bleed the same blue blood as those cherished artefacts of synthetic majesty; Messages, Enola Gay, Souvenir.
The trouble is, as good as English Electric is, it preaches chiefly and only to the converted. Fans will adore it, but beyond that there’s the lingering suspicion that OMD will remain ‘that group’ you go to when you want to relive fading memories of yesteryear. A shame really, as English Electric – both melodically and artistically – stands as a rich, dignified entry in OMD’s catalogue.