In the very fine book Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski we learned, among other things, that many OMD fans can be divided into two distinct camps. One favors the band’s first four albums, the other gravitates toward the next three which are decidedly more appealing to Americans. It was during this latter run the band had its biggest American hit “If You Leave” (US #4) which failed to make the top-40 in the U.K.
After the band’s eighth album, a top-selling Best of, was released co-founder Paul Humphreys left, taking long-time members Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes with him. Andy McCluskey soldiered on for three more albums before closing up shop in the wake of bands like Oasis and Nirvana, as well as the explosion of Brit Pop.
In 2007, at the behest of a German TV program, the band reformed. It went so well, the two decided to start recording again and have just released their third album since getting back together.
The new album, The Punishment of Luxury, fits in well into what can only be described as OMD Mark IV. While I don’t think the OMD fan base is as polarized as Mad World suggests, I do agree with the notion that there are definite phases to the group’s catalog.
This latter installment has cemented the band as one of the most important British musical acts to have come out of the 1980s, largely because they still make great records, something many artists of that era struggle with in the 21st century.
OMD beyond”If You Leave”
For their thirteenth studio album, McCluskey and Humphreys balance their legacy with a contemporary sound that doesn’t sound forced. Indeed, the lead single, “Isotype,” began as a fractured soundscape conceived by McCluskey. However, Humphreys put a soaring keyboard melody on top of it and it became a proper pop song. Such is the working relationship between the two; each bringing in ideas the other never would have thought of.
The title track, which is also the second single, features several familiar elements from the recent albums as well as some new wrinkles including an interesting vocal hook. The song details the First World’s attachment to a lifestyle that was unthinkable at the turn of the 20th century and how it has made many people miserable nonetheless. “Isotype” follows before the album hits a bit of a speed bump with “Robot Man,” a misguided attempt to recapture the experimental side of the band. That mission is completed much more effectively by the tracks “La Mitrailleuse” and “Precision & Decay” even though they’re even more conceptual.
Paul Humphreys takes his turn on lead vocals with the very melodic “What Have We Done?” which more than any song on the album perfectly blends old and new OMD.
“Kiss, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Bang” and “Art Eats Art” are also stand outs. The third single, released just ahead of the album is called “The View from Here” and has been quite a hit with the fan base.
And while the band no longer need to worry about record sales and getting singles into the charts, The Punishment of Luxury is still a carefully crafted treasure that any fan of synthpop, or pop music in general, classic or contemporary, should own.