Thursday, 8 November 2012

OMD: Electro-nerd-pop

OMD's Architecture and Morality was one of the first lps I ever bought, and is the only one today that still gets a regular listen. At the time, I thought they were a bit uncool (not realising that the cut-out lp sleeve had been designed by Peter Saville with the ultra-hip Factory connection) even though I liked the music. I had bought a 7" single of 'Joan of Arc' prior to buying the album, so it wasn't just a whim. I remember playing the first side to friends and taking the needle off the record after the first three songs - I didn't think they'd like the long, electronic 'Sealand'. I was probably right.

I now know that OMD hail from the Wirral, and that Sealand is a place near Chester. (That takes away the mystique somehow.) But I still like the album a lot.

The album begins with a clatter. After a scraping noise and a hiss of white noise, an electronic bass pulse kicks in, then a frantically scrubbed electric guitar on a two chord riff. Andy McCluskey's vocals are slightly discordant, verging on a shout. Stabs of analogue synth pierce the noise, and then a melody emerges, always battling the cacophony. Arpeggiated plinks add to, rather than resolve the racket.The track bangs away for two and a half minutes then fades out, and a rather uplifting ascending three-note bass riff comes to the fore, combining with the arpeggios to form a harmonious close. And this is electro-pop?

The second track, like the third, turns to the hallmark OMD sound found on the singles: mid-tempo, acoustic drums and bass, syncopated synth pulses, luminous pads, choral mellotrons, soaring melodies. The second track is 'She's Leaving' and the third 'Souvenir' (the latter sung, unusually, by Paul Humphreys in a delicate near-falsetto), but at this distance it's difficult to tell which one's the single. 'She's Leaving' has a rudimentary drum machine underpinning the live drums, but this sounds like a band rather than electronics experts tinkering with circuits.

Then comes 'Sealand'. What can you do with that? A reedy synth line, followed by a bass pad that has little melodic connection with the first, then an electronic bass drum like a beating heart and the tick of a hi-hat. The melody, when it does come, is melancholic, but memorable, catherdral, soaring; for all that, though, this is closer to Kraftwerk than OMD's electro-pop contemporaries. And it goes on for 7 minutes.

So is Architecture and Morality electro-pop for the masses or electronic esoterica for the cognoscenti (or the nerds)?

Both, of course. The second side balances the two once more: the Jeanne d'Arc singles 'Joan of Arc' and 'Maid of Orleans' kick off the side. Both have strong pop structures underpinning the atmospheric choral work and mellotrons (and in 'Joan of Arc', a rather lovely xylophone part), and both climbed the charts in the UK (both making the top 5). 'Maid of Orleans' is a kind of waltz, with almost bagpipe-like synths playing the top melody line; I prefer the other, more subtle song.

These are followed by 'Architecture and Morality', a song of pops, clicks, shifting silences and spaces, unsettling choral tones. It's a breather but an uncanny one, like a  rest taken in a graveyard. I like the song a lot - it's on the verge of atonality, collage-like, a testament to the electronic avant-garde that Humphreys and McCluskey also claimed as a heritage.

The last two songs are 'Georgia', an uptempo 4/4 electro-pop song (for a long time my favourite on the album), and closing with 'The Beginning and the End', which, like the first track, features argeggiated guitar textures as well as keyboards. As the title of the song suggests, the album comes full circle, returning to a more contemplative place than the edgy 'New Stone Age', but offering a different sensibility. The song is simple and itself circular or iterative, built around a descending chord structure on the mellotron and McCluskey's impassioned vocal.

Pop music for nerds? Not quite. But Architecture and Morality does pull off the trick of being at once experimental and with genuine pop hits, is of a particular and definitive sensibility and sound, and is a remarkably durable record. I'm still playing it 31 years later.

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