Sunday, May 11, 2008

"A Painful Beauty"

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, "Dazzle Ships"
When Alex told me that the reissue of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's fourth LP, "Dazzle Ships", was earning rave reviews from the likes of Popmatters and Pitchfork, I felt that odd mix of vindication and being usurped that comes when a cherished and coveted favourite record gets a public vetting. On one hand, the modern indie cognoscenti haven't had much time for OMD or much other classic synthpop, except to namecheck them while telling us why Ladytron are doing it so much better than any of the original innovators. On the other hand, "Dazzle Ships" was always OMD's forgotten masterpiece, derided mercilessly as indulgent experimentalism upon release, and it makes sense that it should be rediscovered by modern ears.

80s record authority Ned Ragget called "Dazzle Ships" "a 'Kid A' of it's time": a confounding and obtuse experiment released in the wake of a great band's defining album - the solemn and majestic "Architecture and Morality" in OMD's case. Listeners weren't sure what to do with a barrage of radio samples and discordant military sirens after the perkiness of "Enola Gay" or the lush, chart-friendly chiming of "Souvenir". While OMD had always been writing music about technology, "Dazzle Ships" pushed that agenda so far to the fore that it was impossible to listen to the record without dealing with that theme head-on. Furthermore, as the liner notes in this re-release argue, not dealing with political issues at the peak of the Cold War seemed impossible for a band obsessed with technology and culture. The end result? This is a record about globalization's affect on our psyches and technologies that came out a year before Fredric Jameson first published on "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism", and a decade before Bill Clinton made globalization a household term on the campaign trail. Reaction to it was marked by same confusion and disorientation that its titular vessels sought to provoke.

"Dazzle Ships" remains as oblique, shimmering and inspired today as it did upon release. True, the bricolage of radio broadcasts and technoculture prophecy doesn't sound nearly as revolutionary as it did upon release - sampling and the acceptance of it by the general listening public have come a long way in twenty-five years. But what does still have an impact is the juxtaposition of the cacophony of the zeitgeist with the two modes of songwriting that OMD had perfected in their previous releases: chirpy, bubbling synthpop odes to technology, and epic, mournful ballads. By adding the Cold War/communications tech motif of "Dazzle Ships" to their palette, OMD managed to blend the personal and the political, the emotive and the austere until the subject of the song detaches from itself. Metaphor becomes a two-way street.

What's more, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys brought some of their best compositions to the "Dazzle Ship" sessions, regardless of presentation or context. All of the three up-tempo synthpop numbers are crackers, but only "Radio Waves" ever gives itself over fully to the ecstasy of melody and the power of technology. The others, "Genetic Engineering" and "Telegraph" temper their joyous everything-and-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation with McClusky's wary lyrics. "Genetic Engineering" is particularly unsettling - a facile melody is accompanied by a Speak n' Spell voice intoning an eerie litany: "Babies, mother, hospital, scissors, creature, judgment, butcher, engineer". The instumental tracks, composed almost entirely of samples, help to frame the more developed tracks within "Dazzle Ships"' ethos - while you might not ever go out of your way to listen to "ABC Auto-Industry" or "Time Zones" on their own, they're essential to the album's overall effect. As for the ballads, they pack a punch. The processional, almost nautical heartache of "Joan Of Arc" is revisited in "The Romance of the Telescope" and "International", the former of which has been pointed to by McClusky and Humphreys as a band favourite. The record closes with "Of All The Things We've Made", a plaintive, mechanical farewell that sounds as though it's a hair's-width away from collapsing at any moment, while McClusky croons about the failure of our creations (Technology? Love? As always, there is no distinction.) - "Everything we've made/All the things we've said/They've always worked before today".

As for the merits of this particular re-release, this listener could detect little to no distinction between the sound of the record with this "new" digital remaster and the original CD release, but given how many classic electronic 80s records have become victims of the loudness war, mayhaps I should be thankful. So, lets turn to the bonus tracks to see what this reissue offers to longtime OMD fans. The melodic elements of the 1981 version of "Telegraph" are more or less the same as the original, but a slightly slower and heavier beat and a more unhinged vocal performance by Andy McClusky makes the desperate tone of the song sound positively menacing. The "312mm" version of "Genetic Engineering" is simply an extended mix which, along with the "Telegraph" extended mix, doesn't bring anything new to the table. "4-Neu" and "66 And Fading" already had a recent outing on the B-sides compilation "Navigation" (which, in my humble opinion, is the most crucial OMD release to obtain after the first four LPs), but they're both gorgeous, cinematic bits of melancholy (think Vangelis' "Blade Runner" work) that show just how adept McCluskey and Humphreys were at crafting ambient soundscapes as well as pure pop. That leaves intended album closer "Swiss Radio International", which was initially meant as a counterpart to the "opening radio call sign" function that "Radio Prague" serves. According to OMD's website, Swiss Radio felt that allowing their call sign to appear on an album which heavily sampled communist radio broadcast would violate Switzerland's policy of cultural neutrality! Anyhow, it's a nice little lullaby, and I'm seriously considering appending it to the end of the original LP for future listens. The long and the short: if you've already got "Dazzle Ships" and "Navigation", there isn't a lot of revelatory new material here. But, if you're halfway as obsessed with OMD's music or Peter Saville's design as most of their fans are, the "gotta have it" factor will likely win out (as it did with me).

Speaking of Peter Saville, he intriguingly created three different designs for each of the formats "Dazzle Ships" was initially released on: vinyl, cassette and CD. Each of these designs seemed focused on presenting Saville's take on the dazzle ship camouflage (and vorticist Edward Wadsworth's painting, "Dazzle-ships In Drydock at Liverpool", shown here) within the frame that each format provided. So, instead of having to live with a rich composition that was meant to be shown at LP-size shrunk down to tape or CD size, we got individual cover art tailor-made for those smaller canvases (and more pieces for us Saville fan-boys to collect). The original LP sleeve used punched-out hole in the front (like Saville's magnum opus, "Blue Monday") in concert with the art on the slipcase in order to create a representation of travel and movement through time zones, one of the record's key images. Unfortunately, the reissue does just what Saville sought to avoid: shrinking the LP art to CD size, with none of the cool pull-out design. That being said, the (uncredited) essay in the liner notes is well-written and nicely situates the record in both the context of OMD's career and the pop climate of the time.

In the liner notes, McClusky recalls "Dazzle Ships" as "the lowest selling album that we ever released and yet I am inordinately proud of it. Maybe we did something that was commercial suicide, but we did that album for the right reasons. It has a painful beauty." McClusky didn't need the critical vindication the album's received in recent years in order to produce, release and stand by such a bizarre and unprecedented album (although whether it prompted OMD to retreat back into safe and pleasant territory with next year's "Junk Culture" is another story), but if recent hosannas prompt contemporary listeners to explore the depth and breadth of OMD's work which lies beyond well-worn radio fare like "If You Leave" and "So In Love", then this re-release will have served admirably.

1 comment:

Gabriel Rosa said...

I have or, rather, had this on vinyl (can't find it anymore), and it was somewhat odd listening to, which I haven'd done in ages! Let me see if I can find it on YouTube... Ah, here it is: