With a title like The Punishment of Luxury coming out into a geopolitical climate like this one, and knowing OMD's past dalliances with progressive social and cultural criticism, I can't help but read great things into this new album from the get-go. It's been out since September so literally everyone in the world has had a chance to listen to it before me, but my copy (yes I still buy CDs, certainly when it comes to stuff like this, shut up) just arrived a few weeks ago as of this writing due, happily, to the fact it was out of stock on release date, which implies it's selling really well! I'm not going to attempt a “proper” review or anything like that: I'm not a musicologist, music historian or music critic (Andrew Hickey and Phil are both much, much better at that sort of thing than I could ever hope to be) so I'm going to stop pretending I am and just give my thoughts on what this album says to me and how it makes me feel on a gut personal and emotional level.
The first thing we have to square away is the business of that title though. Many of OMD's past albums have derived their names from things like paintings, art exhibitions or academic theory books (Architecture & Morality, Dazzle Ships, History of Modern) and this is the case with The Punishment of Luxury too. The problem is this time the name's not taken from a cool post-Vorticist painting or a book of architecture history, but from a nasty bit of misogyny called The Punishment of Lust, an 1891 oil painting by one Giovanni Segantini. The painting showcases Segantini's views that women are natural-born mothers and caregivers, depicting those who “failed” in that obligation (especially if they had gotten abortions) as either sinful, tragic or both. The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool (where Andy McCluskey saw it) acquired the painting in 1893, but retitled it The Punishment of Luxury, which helpfully obfuscates the original meaning of the work.
Thankfully for us though the band have taken that title and completely reappropriated it (Andy McCluskey himself takes care to stress they're interpreting the title a very different way): On this album, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys lash out with a crippling indictment of every single hollow vapidity of late-stage capitalism, all while weeping for those living under its boot and praying for a better life for us all. The Punishment of Luxury is just about as toothy, emboldened, inspired and as emotionally powerful, profound and resonant as I have ever heard Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
It is impossible to ignore the context of this album coming out into a world that's seen both Brexit and a Donald Trump presidency (hell, the latter even shows up in the music video for the title track), especially when track 4 is called “What Have We Done”. It would do The Punishment of Luxury an enormous disservice, however, to simply call it OMD's Brexit and Trump album, just as it would do Dazzle Ships an injustice to call it “just” a Cold War and Falklands conflict album: This is something with a far grander reach and a far more holistic and meaningful message to deliver, even if perhaps it couldn't have happened before now. This is not (thank the gods) a simplistic didactic anti-Trump or Brexit shock piece, though one gets the sense things like that were the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel's backs. This is a frustrated, fed-up emotional railing against the world of loneliness, sadness and injustice we've built for ourselves (the way we punish ourselves, in a word) and a heartfelt plea for us to finally, this time, *please* move on and make something better. And while OMD's workmanlike prosaic tendencies do shine through on more than one occasion, that's far from something we should be critical or dismissive of. Sometimes just coming out and saying what you have to say, without dolling it up in any kind of fancy metaphor, is saying enough.
On a more personal note, it's also impossible to ignore the fact that this is the first post-reformation OMD album to lack original drummer Malcolm Holmes, who had to step back from the band after a frightful health scare led him to collapse onstage during a show in Toronto while on tour supporting English Electric in July 2013. Mal's absence is notably felt on The Punishment of Luxury, which dials down the drum and percussion section considerably to compensate. It works, but it's hard not to notice once you realise why it was done. Mal's replacement is Stuart Kershaw, who toured with Andy McCluskey briefly in 1993 after working with him on and off since 1991 and with whom he went on to found Atomic Kitten in 1998. Whenever a band's lineup changes, in any capacity, I tend to consider it no longer the same band, but I'm inclined to go a bit easy here...I mean for goodness sake we're talking about an outfit that's been around in some capacity for *40 years* now. All I can do is wish Mal the best and say he will be missed, although he gets a “Special Thanks” in the liner notes for The Punishment of Luxury, so it's nice to see he was still able to contribute in some way!
When it comes to music albums, a neglected art in this age of iTunes, Bandcamp and Spotify is that of the album itself. Back when 100% of people who bought music experienced it on physical media, artists would often take advantage of this, making the media and packaging of the record part of the artistic and aesthetic experience. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were masters of this from the beginning, employing famed designer Peter Saville (also known for his work with New Order) to create captivating and creative sleeve designs for a number of their albums, including all of their heavy-hitters. The covers for their self-titled debut album and Architecture & Morality, for example, had die-cut slots and windows so that the inner sleeve would show through. You were supposed to open the sleeve and see the image change into something else.
If you get one of the physical copies of The Punishment of Luxury, you might be pleased to see this trend continue: My Deluxe Edition CD/DVD combo pack comes in a sturdy book-style case, and when you open it you see the DVD mounted on a transparent insert. The disc matches the abstract art behind it, a gradient of colourful parallel lines bisected down the middle. There's a booklet stapled to the case done in the same style that has lyrics to all the songs, credits, and an artistic photograph of Andy and Paul at the back. Behind the booklet at the other end of the case is the music CD, which is mounted and printed in a complimentary style to the DVD at the front. It's a charming little mini-art package (courtesy London designers effection and Liverpudlian artist dot-art) that suits the album perfectly, and can I just say how nice it is to finally get an OMD album that has lyrics in its booklet insert? Neither English Electric nor my copies of the remasters of the four classic albums have that.
Spinning (or ripping) that CD, we're confronted with the album's soundscape itself. We open with the title track: A blunt, aggressive statement of purpose that's impossible to forget. Apparently this is also the oldest track on the album, seeing its origins as a rough arrangement first laid down during the English Electric sessions. Knowing this marks for an ironically fitting sense of thematic progression, as while “Metroland” opened English Electric with the melancholy observation of “Elegance in decline”, “The Punishment of Luxury” opens its album with the furious declaration “I'm leaving now/Couldn't take it another day!”. Andy McCluskey sounds genuinely angry on this song (especially during live performances), maybe even at us, spitting out venom-laced barbs like “Lazy girl/Dirty boy/Surrounded by your broken toys” and “Think you're right/Think you're free/Floating in your purgatory/But you made your choice/And you're living it everyday”. There is perhaps a whiff of the “Old Man Yells At Cloud” in some of the lyrical choices here, but I'm not going to fault Andy for that: Frankly OMD's lyrics have never been the most elegant and refined affairs in the world, but that's part of their charm. And if I were in his place, I'd probably be feeling the same way.
I already am.
As Andy confirms on the accompanying DVD, this song and album are about what happens when people, searching for something missing in their lives, attempt to fill the hole in themselves with consumer goods and pop culture. Which is exactly what capitalism wants, and this is the vicious cycle: In order to continue to perpetuate its existence it needs to convince you that you're incomplete without the latest and greatest toy they're peddling. Reality isn't good enough, so we need to manufacture and sell an artificial alternative. And when we get to the point where we're letting our commodity fetishism make up for something eternal we've lost touch with, we're in trouble. And so we are.
One of the most remarkable things about this opener, and its accompanying music video is that in spite of its modern production, it sounds like something that could have been done just as easily in 1987 as 2017 and it would have fit just as well (assuming, of course, that OMD had been in a position to release something like this in 1987). Which, given the subject matter and tone, is both charming and terrifying.
“Isotype”, as the song opens by telling us, is a reference to the International System of Typographic Picture Education. This was a system of pictographs used to simplify and distill complex and important information into graphical forms that were immediately self-explanatory. Isotype emerged from around the mid 1920s to early 1930s in Red Vienna, the Social Democratic capital of Austria during the interwar years which effectively operated as its own state. Following the rise of fascism, its founders were forced to flee Austria, and it saw use in England during World War II in war documents, as well as adaptions in the United States and Soviet Union. The song “Isotype”, according to Paul, is also inspired by emojis and how people today attempt to distill complex emotions and experiences into a simpler visual form. There is a noticeable tension the lyrics explore between trying to make language simpler and more accessible, while also raising concern that meaning is lost in translation and the fear people have they're not being truly heard and understood.
The song that gave me the most pause and was the trickiest for me to get a handle on at first was “Robot Man”. Its weird, stomping vocals come out of nowhere, and kind of threw me for a curve the first time I heard them coming straight after “Isotype”, a song that is far more plaintive and elegant and that I was already familiar with. Its lyrics also do not do it any favours, with such turns of phrases like “Well I used to wish that I was enough/'Cause I gave you love and all of that stuff” and the chorus of “Robot Man, Robot Man, Robot Man/You've got me running just as fast as I can/In the head you're the perfect machine/There's a hole where your heart should have been”. Thankfully though the melody is *insanely* fun and catchy and you'll be singing along in spite of yourself. And I mean “Tesla Girls” doesn't really make sense at first glance either.
Andy says this song is an homage to British music producer Daniel Miller and the song “Warm Leatherette”, released by his outfit The Normal in 1987. I am not at all familiar with Miller or his work, but I did spin “Warm Leatherette” in prep for this, I can see the influence (on both this song and the album on the whole) and it definitely elevates “Robot Man” in my estimation. It's clearly done with tongue planted firmly in cheek: That song's rhyme schemes are just as offbeat and slightly silly, and the fact it's inspired by J.G. Ballard's Crash gets it kudos for me and is sure to win it admirers in the Eruditorum Press set. “Robot Man” though is about, well, a man who wants to be a robot. Or rather, a man who bottles up his own feelings and refuses to show any emotion whatsoever, for fear it makes him weak and vulnerable, thus alienating him from any potential friends and confidants. And boy is that ever a pertinent message right now.
“What Have We Done” is a Paul Humphreys-led affair, and also the song I was the most wrong about in the leadup to release. With a name like that it is, as I said, really hard not to draw comparisons to the contemporary political climate. But that's actually not what it's about at all: Listening to the song itself, with its elegiac and plaintive melodies waltzing repeatedly into chilling synthesized orchestral hits, it sounds far more as if this is a reflective piece looking back on the lives we've built ourselves and asking if any of it has been worth it. This kind of contemplative introspection is right up Paul's alley, and there's a twinge of shuddering horror in the song's solidarity with us, as if it's unnerved by the monster we've created and that it now looks back on. According to Paul though this isn't what he was thinking about at all, so go figure. Apparently it was inspired by him having to put his beloved dog down during the recording sessions for The Punishment of Luxury and it is, admittedly, hard to un-hear this once you know about it. Paul also says it's about the difficult, but unavoidable decisions we all must make in life, and how they're necessary even when they seem horrible in the moment, and learning to come to terms with this and heal. I maintain this can still fit with my initial reading, however, and it remains an important message regardless.
One one the things I really like about this album is how it's quintessentially Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but doesn't at all sound derivative of anything they've done before. “Precision & Decay” is a great example of what I mean by this, and it doubles as the point where I feel The Punishment of Luxury really kicks into high gear: Dazzle Ships (and to a lesser extent Organisation) was defined by its musique concrète sound collages that aesthetically and thematically “broke up” the album. English Electric attempted a return to this, but on the latter record I felt the compositions were either a bit too obviously didactic or too reminiscent of something already done on Dazzle Ships. There's nothing quite like that on The Punishment of Luxury, but the closest thing would be “Precision & Decay”: A moody bass and synth instrumental mashed up with a robot voice singing the lyrics and some really moving use of sampling. The “chorus”, if you want to call it that, says it all: “From Luxury to Landfill/And Precision to Decay/The highway of prosperity/To collapse and dismay”: This is explicitly a song about the capitalist crisis of overproduction, and it couldn't put a finer point on it.
As someone who follows consumer electronics by reluctant necessity, this is already a moment of triumphant catharsis for me, but it gets better. The robot singer actually sounds elderly and wizened, her best days now merely a distant memory and left only with mental confusion as she lives out her last days in mere existence. So by the time the sample of “The Ford Rouge Plant at Dearborn, Michigan” (complete with its own ghostly Vocoder refrain) comes in you're set up for a real punch to the gut. The haunted broadcast continues, singing paeans to “A Song of Power, day and night” as the robot singer responds, before ending with the succinct “There is no such thing as labour saving machinery”.
On any other album, “As We Open, So We Close” could have been the closing track, with its palpably soaring emotion and yearning. It's even got the perfect name. On The Punishment of Luxury, by contrast, this is just the midpoint: A desperate plea for intimacy in an age where we have banished it from our lives. Like the “Robot Man” above, the singer of this song seems to have built up a facade of indifference and isolation, though this time as a survival mechanism instead of a belief in the superiority of logic, rationality and cool, indifferent calculation. More than anything else, he wants to reconnect with his own humanity and those of his peers, but he knows expressing that publicly would kill him. “Take me to your fragile place/I promise I will show you/My real face” he begs in the songs climactic moments. But intimacy can neither be kept in secret or given at will: It has to be built together, and that's not possible in a world that has abandoned all notions of togetherness.
“Art Eats Art” is a classic OMD moment. Opening with what sounds like the sound effects to a 1980s airline announcement, it then turns into a stomping, rousing club anthem whose lyrics are nothing but Andy McCluskey reciting a bunch of names of famous artists fed through a synthesizer. It's brilliantly daft and I love it. The name and composition seem both inspired by the concept of artistic influence itself, paralleled with capitalism's drive to repackage and resell art in discrete, disposable forms. Alongside this is also a criticism of the Great Man Theory of History, or indeed Art History: Andy and Paul talk about how they were attacked for only including one woman artist in the entire song, but stress that this is a criticism built into the song itself. History disproportionately favours men over women and women's history is always confined to the shadows and margins. You don't see a lot of women's names in textbooks, and we teach our children by forcing them to memorize lists of dates, men's names and empirical data (as part of an educational system designed, of course, to produce competent, compliant and docile industrial workers). And lastly, there's some fun self deprecation. Andy's voice is just about unrecognisable and, as he enthusiastically points out, the original melody was (thankfully) completely lost in the recording.
The song, the commercial artistic product, is literally devouring its singer's voice.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are most loved in critical circles for their weird experimentation and playful lateral indulgences.The results of this can be delightfully disparate, ranging from the likes of their gonzo “cover” of “The More I See You” on Organisation to all of Architecture & Morality. You can't deny this is part of who the band is, and their fierce sense of individuality and integrity in these moments has to be respected. “Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang” is probably The Punishment of Luxury's best exemplar of this, being (lyrically, at least) a total stream-of-consciousness rant of basically nonsense words. Those less versed in the band's history could accuse Andy McCluskey of phoning this one in, but this approach tends to get the band their best material: Architecture & Morality aside, “VCL XI” on Organisation was similarly basically an instrumental with meaningless dummy lyrics, and that was one of that album's standout tracks. Things like this and “Robot Man” may not be the easiest of the band's output to get into, but I'm very glad they can exist: OMD have nothing to prove anymore and they got their start making whatever they wanted with whatever they could find. It's great to see them have that freedom again.
And, as Andy himself admits in the accompanying DVD, this stream of consciousness approach does give us a window into what OMD were thinking about when recording The Punishment of Luxury. That Andy comes up with stuff like “Mao Tse-tung and Uncle Sam/Sold the world/Bought the car/This time you've gone too far” and “Everything makes me sick” are revealing. The United States and China are currently the most disgustingly capitalist countries on the planet, their governments and corporations unashamedly willing to abandon all morals, ethics and humanity in the pursuit of the Almighty Profit. And, because they have discarded their humanity, they lay waste to the environment and the natural world in the process. The lyrics then take on a dual meaning: The singer is sick and tired of living in a world where simply existing makes him physically sick. As am I.
The last cohesive sentence is also telling. “Mr. Hyde and Doctor Spock/Fuck You and your theory/Nothing you do can get near me”. I believe I have only heard And McCluskey swear on record once before, on History of Modern's album opener “New Babies; New Toys”, a vicious takedown of The X Factor and what it did to the entertainment industry. But on “Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang” OMD once more reveal their working class heart, giving voice to all those people fed up with being talked down to, talked over, dismissed and belittled by sanctimonious, pretentious, patronizing, entitled, rich, white, obsequious faux-intellectual liberals. If you want to really get at the heart of why things have ended up the way they have...Well, there you are.
Possibly the album's most tragic song, the appropriately discordant romance and uptempo melodies of “One More Time” seems to tell a story about the destructive relationships that are bad for all of us...But that we can't put behind us because our profound loneliness and isolation leave us with nobody and nothing else to turn to. The singer emphatically admits “I didn't think I could love you like the past/'Cause everything you gave me didn't last” and even that “I couldn't bear to see your face again/It takes me years to overcome the pain”. And yet, he begs his former paramour to “hold me in your arms and say you're mine/And you can break my heart just one more time”. Andy says it's a song about the things from our past we have lost and can't get back, and this also puts me in mind of the compulsion to Golden Age daydreaming and “nostalgic” retrofetishism that seems to be everywhere in our society today. We don't allow ourselves to be satisfied in our lives now, so we invent an imagined past where we were happy and engage in big, performative displays of sadness and yearning to return to the fictions we torment ourselves with.
But the most telling line of all, honestly, has to be “I'm praying to the sky above/Never let me ever fall in love”. We've reached a state where intimacy and emotional honesty does nothing but drive people away. It's not something our world knows how to deal with, nor does it have time for. When love is suppressed, love does nothing but bring ruin and damnation.
“La Mitrailleuse” was the first song released from The Punishment of Luxury, and it's appropriately dour. Like “Precision & Decay”, it's an almost-instrumental with some singing, and this time it's Andy robotically reciting the chilling stanza “Bend your body to the will of the machine” against a disturbingly beautiful and musical sampling of machine gun fire. Indeed, “La Mitrailleuse” is French for “the machine gun” and, in true OMD fashion, it's named after the 1915 painting of the same name by futurist painter Christopher Nevinson, called “the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting”. A song and video evoking a painting about dehumanization and brutal subjugation of humanity by machinery and industrial progress, this is the perfect way for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to introduce us to their new era in 2017.
And then there was “Ghost Star”.
And here is where I have to draw the line.
I cannot “review” this song. Putting my reaction to this album's penultimate track into words would require me to expose myself completely bare, and that's not something I'm willing to do on this stage. Slaying the patriarchal God of objectivity requires intimacy, but intimacy also requires boundaries. Some things just need to be kept private, and I fear in my life and line of work I end up treading into oversharing far more often than would be healthy or beneficial for me or anyone else far too often. There's always an element of self-indulgence in what I do, and for that I can only apologise. This is the place where my approach to criticism breaks down, as it probably should. Sometimes you just need to Stop and Listen.
All I can tell you is this, and you'll just have to take my word for it. “Ghost Star” is a masterpiece. This is the song you buy The Punishment of Luxury for, and it immediately elevates the album from “already excellent” to the ranks of the very best things Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark have ever done. It is, very possibly, OMD's truest and greatest masterpiece: It is the necessary and self-evidently correct solution to the worries, concerns, anger and sadness raised on all the tracks before it, the culmination of the entire album's thematic ethos. And, though they're reluctant to say so, the band knows it. And yet, it remains tinged with melancholy and sorrow because there are painful wounds even here. Such is the extent of the damage we have done to ourselves and the world around us. The title itself, “Ghost Star”, says it all. But now, at least and at last, we can begin to heal.
More than even that, this is is the capstone to a 40 year long career that I now desperately hope even more than I already did isn't over yet. I am not at all surprised to learn the finished product is the result of the combination of two unfinished song concepts, one by Andy McCluskey, and one by Paul Humphreys, neither of which either could make work without the other. It is quite possibly the single greatest thing these two men have ever written, and with it Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark have ended up worlds away from where they began in 1977. And yet, looking back, it really was the only place they ever could have ended up. Now, the full tapestry of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys' evolution as artists and growth as human beings can be seen, and I now understand more than ever before why they were the ones to found my favourite band. For me,“Ghost Star” is a breathtakingly evocative and intensely personal experience. Having it as the climax to an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album called The Punishment of Luxury released in 2017 is exactly the artistic message I needed right now.
For you, it might not be. In fact, in all probability it won't be. But I invite you to see for yourself.
“Climb the mountain of your fear/You should see The View From Here/Climb the mountain of your fear/Easy said and done from here”. Is that Westminster Quarters I hear? The album closer says it all, rendering my job even more pointless and irrelevant than it already is. Our fears and anxieties seem insurmountable. They're not, but not everyone has the means or feels empowered enough to rise to that challenge. Those of us who have reached the summit and left the remnants of our past lives on the ascent can reach down to offer our help, but we are fundamentally limited by what we can do. Ultimately, everyone must take their life into their own hands and find their own path. It's easy for us to give advice when we're not in the moment. And it's altogether too easy to forget that the darkness can seem to go on forever.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark have been on the margins exploring and critiquing modern society for 40 years, and the future they kept hoping for never came. In hindsight, this was the only possible way to follow up an album like English Electric. The Punishment of Luxury is, for my money, the most cohesive and pertinent album-length statement OMD have delivered since Dazzle Ships, and is a serious contender for their very best. It is also possibly their most misunderstood work since Dazzle Ships (the album has gotten mixed and confused, but generally positive reviews), but given the comparison and historical precedent, that is a sterling endorsement. Whether The Punishment of Luxury will, like Dazzle Ships, be able to transcend its contemporary geopolitical climate to become a lasting and timeless message depends, really, a great deal on you and I.
All that's left, I suppose, is to do the AllMusic “tracklist with editorial favourite picks” thing:
The Punishment of Luxury - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2017)