OMD on “The Punishment of Luxury”

Thoroughly Catchy, But Boundary Pushing

Oct 13, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Though the members of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) are known for being one of Britain's top selling synth pop pioneers, a far different sound can be found on one of the best songs from their new album, The Punishment of Luxury. For example, in place of the lush, pulsing, inviting electronica of their '80s heyday, "La Mitrailleuse" instead has machine gun fire as the backdrop for frontman Andy McCluskey's vocals (the current lineup is rounded out by cofounder and keyboardist Paul Humphreys, along with long running members Martin Cooper and Stuart Kershaw). The violent shots on "La Mitrailleuse" are surprisingly rhythmic, however, making it thoroughly catchy, but still boundary pushing enough to be entirely different from their prior, breezily danceable chart toppers.

That being said, McCluskey insists that the brazen, conceptual, and artsy "La Mitrailleuse" is very much in keeping with the band's prior work, at least in spirit. "OMD has always functioned at the space where machinery and humans interface, and that juxtaposition creates the tension and melancholy which is our sound," he says. "And that track is purely my voice and the sound of artilleryit's the most simplified and musical example of what we do."

Despite OMD's mainstream success over the years, the experimentalism of "La Mitrailleuse" shouldn't come as a surprise. Casual listeners who cranked the volume on their catchy radio singles over the years may not realize it, but the band's biggest fans know and love OMD for the esoteric themes throughout their catalogue. Indeed, some of the band's most popular songs feature synthesizer lines where one might expect to hear a conventional chorus, while their lyrical themes eschew well trodden topics in favor of machinery, war, and realpolitik.

That approach might have been glossed over by much of the public when their early catchy songs like "Enola Gay" topped the charts, even though that track in particular is a prime example of their subversive nature, because it was named after and inspired by the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But of course, their bolder, midcareer LP, 1983's Dazzle Ships, took that approach further, utilizing overt Cold War themes, portions of radio recordings and more. While that LP has aged well and is hailed as a major influence by Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, and other contemporary bands, it was a commercial disappointment upon its 1983 release, and put major strain on the band. A 2008 retrospective in the Guardian described it as an album that "more or less destroyed their career."

Before those sluggish sales, the band seemed almost invincible. Indeed, McCluskey felt truly proud of the group's early artistic, boundary pushing successes, as if he were living up to the ideals of his avant garde idols like Kraftwerk, despite OMD's successes in the mainstream.

"In the early days we were convinced we were doing it on our own terms. There were no A&R men interfering. We were very pleased with ourselves, we thought we were usurping the stereotypes of pop music," McCluskey says.

However, by the late '80s, McCluskey says, "Without realizing it, we had subtly and slowly fallen into the trap of music becoming our job, and we felt constantly pressured into touring and selling more records and breaking the North American market." The band were megastars in the U.K., but never caught on in the same way Stateside.

Of that late '80s slump, McCluskey says OMD had "less time to explore our crazy ideas. We became more craftsmen than artists. We wore ourselves out by the end of the '80s and the band imploded, we were sick and tired of each other." Compounding matters was their record contract. "We didn't realize when we signed in 1979 that we had made a pact with the devil. Having sold 25 million singles, and 10 million albums, we owed the record company a million pounds. And it wasn't because we wasted our money on jetliners and yachts, it was because the deal we signed wasn't paying us any money. So the band stopped."

The other members left, and McCluskey carried OMD onward for a few years. When that petered out he wrote hits for pop acts like Atomic Kitten and The Genie Queen. In the mid '00s there was demand for the band to tour again, and McCluskey, Humphreys, Cooper, and Kershaw not only reunited but began writing and recording again. The Punishment of Luxury is the band's third album since their reformation, and aside from the experimental "La Mitrailleuse," it also has plenty of more melodic numbers, such as the title track and the yearning yet soothing "The View From Here."

McCluskey says this period is one of OMD's most fulfilling, adding: "When we reformed we thought: 'If we're going to continue to make new music, we need to make it on our own terms.' And the last 10 years feel like our first four or five. We're back in control."

He's wary of the pitfalls though, saying: "For older people, you can delude yourself, if you love touring and love all the trappings of the music industry. So people churn out albums that are sad pastiches of their former selves, just because they need a new logo for the new tour."

But OMD have grander ambitions than that, which is clear upon listening to new tracks like "La Mitrailleuse." McCluskey says: "We hope we're not deluding ourselves. We feel hungry and we want to continue having proper conversations with ourselves that are about the music and not about record sales. So it's been a long journey of learning the plot, and hopefully regaining it again."

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