Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
This isn’t quite a first listen. Like many Americans, I am deeply familiar with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave,” though for even more ignominious reasons than the greater population: while most had Pretty in Pink to deflower them, by the time I was an adolescent there were different sensationalists standing by to jerk my tears, and Nada Surf’s cover version of the song, set to “The O.C.”‘s cover version of the scene, was my introduction.
When pitching this article, I asked if knowing my way around “If You Leave” disqualified me—it was only one song, after all—and was informed that if my expectations for OMD were dictated by Duckie and Andie, let alone Seth and Anna, I was all kinds of qualified. The package I received was meticulous in its cataloguing of OMD pre-1984, reducing the subsequent twelve years to forty-some minutes of assembled singles—with “If You Leave” languishing forgotten in their midst.
OMD’s body of work comes with a program: rising to success with their first two albums, the band ruled the portion of the world they could with magnum opus Architecture & Morality and pulled a King Edward with the willfully difficult Dazzle Ships, on which they outed themselves as unfriendly experimentalists and never sold as well again. Like a lot of programs, this one is thematically reductive: Dazzle Ships‘ aesthetic is not a sudden left turn but hibernates in plain view in OMD’s early work, and when I heard the album only seconds after the end of Architecture & Morality and only hours after the beginning of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, it seemed as logically continuous as Sgt. Pepper’s did the first time I breezed casually through the Beatles’ catalogue. The beauty of curated first listens is the possibility of deviation from the program.
OMD’s debut has “Messages,” yes; it has the insistent “Electricity”; but it also has things like “The Messerschmitt Twins,” which creeps through an insectoid landscape for close to six minutes, caressed by vocals that don’t so much fade out at the end as never fade in at the beginning. Here, as on the lyricless “Dancing,” whose dueting synths growl like cartoon dinosaurs, OMD is icy and strange, far from accessible—indeed, to these ears, Dazzle Ships‘ scratchy radio broadcasts and technological gadflying are warmer, more inviting. Organisation‘s “2nd Thought” sees great dollops of Ian Curtis dripping and hardening atop Andy McCluskey’s croon, and the notorious “Enola Gay”—not quite as savagely deconstructionist as it pretends—has not only the synthesizers but the cheerful hostility of a Zelda dungeon.
Only on Architecture & Morality does the band begin to exhibit the romantic theatricality for which I knew them. Songs like “She’s Leaving” still center themselves around repetitive synth lines, but the arrangements begin to swell with the accouterments of success: empty space is stuffed full, lasers chirp in the background, and McCluskey’s voice not only begins to unfurl but does so while watching girls leave rather than studying the benefits of solar electricity. The program has this album as the popular pinnacle, and indeed it sees the band’s most bloody-minded habits repressed—fewer tracks wander leisurely through dark soundscapes, and the electronic majesty of “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans),” its digital bagpipers tramping over digital heaths, is as enormous and stirring as the band’s earlier work is strange and internalized.
But as much of a sucker as I am for such electric epics, it’s Dazzle Ships amongst the four albums provided to which I really feel I can give my heart. Ballyhooed experimentation aside, its poppiest moments catch my ear more ruthlessly than anything on earlier albums, and the pranks it plays with its allotted materials—the call-and-response sequence of two burbling computers on “ABC Auto-Industry,” the brief round of speaking clocks that comprises the whole of “Time Zone”—avoid the self-importance that sinks many who dabble in similar novelties. Indeed, Dazzle Ships seems for all its ostentatious oddness and dystopian lyrics the least assuming of the four records; it’s buoyed throughout by a soft, half-giggling fondness for the underbellies of sounds that only lurks in the background of OMD’s somber early work. The drumbeat on “Of All the Things We’ve Made” asserts itself slowly, with great pleasure; the title track plays with its minimal beat just enough to keep you proud of yourself for following before lunging at you with noise; and that the lockstep pop of “Genetic Engineering” is being ironic doesn’t make it less fun. Besides, its peppy eugenics are twice as chilling as Radiohead’s deeply indebted but humorless “Fitter Happier.” The anthems of Architecture & Morality reach repeatedly for sublimity; here sublimity is so bountiful it becomes funny.
It’s strange to take an oeuvre assembled over years and compress it into a few hours of listening. One finds upheavals and flouted expectations collapsing into an imperfect procession: sitting with a stack of burned CDs, lacking context, anticipation, live shows, television appearances, even album covers, I am left with nothing but a band always given to certain fascinations that indulges one, then another, until finding those that work. In the Dark was an awfully good place to listen to this.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Architecture & Morality