Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
The context: After scoring big with Architecture & Morality, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark—a band whose members once comprised the short-lived Hitlerz Underpantz—began to take itself more seriously. When designer and friend to the group Peter Saville became enamored with Edward Wadsworth’s painting Dazzle Ships In Drydock At Liverpool, a depiction of warships so named because they were painted in disjointed lines to confuse the enemy, he suggested the title and concept to OMD leader Andy McCluskey. In 1983, the band produced Dazzle Ships, a difficult, conceptual album about Cold War paranoia, steeped in Eastern Bloc imagery. It’s a fragmented, moody pop record broken up by bursts of concrete music, abstract electronics experiments, and shortwave-radio samples—all in all, about as psychedelic as new wave ever got—that came to be regarded as the group’s biggest stumble.
The greatness: In a decade that thumbed its nose at high-minded concepts, Dazzle Ships was a critical and commercial disappointment, but in light of OMD’s subsequent makeover into a treacly New Romantic outfit, it’s tempting to think of Dazzle Ships as the last authentic statement of a band that saw its artistic ambitions crushed by the necessity of producing hits. McCluskey was notoriously political, and there’s a post-apocalyptic sense of humor in songs like “Genetic Engineering,” where a gleeful chorus sings, “These are the lies they tell us / The future’s good as sold” over a bed of chiming Telex machines. The sound collages, such as “Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III, & IV)“ and “Time Zones,” sound derivative of Kraftwerk, but the band evokes an appropriately out-of-time otherworldliness through its sampling of retro technology. And while cloaked in science-geek futurism, Dazzle Ships is really about regret, as in the standout tracks “The Romance Of The Telescope” and “Of All The Things We’ve Made.” In both songs, McCluskey’s perpetually cracked-with-sadness voice is set against a gray sky of stark synth and piano lines, the fragile human heart of an album obsessed with machinery. The fact that both of these were previously released B-sides led some critics to say that Dazzle Ships had nothing new to offer—which is a good line, but the upbeat singles “Telegraph” and “Radio Waves” still rank among OMD’s best.
Defining song: It’s hard to compete with the giddy, kid-friendly nihilism of “Genetic Engineering” or the exultant handclaps that announce the arrival of “Radio Waves,” but “Silent Running” best captures the album’s dystopian mood. A moving ode to existential crisis that’s also a timely expression of Thatcher-era angst, the song borrows heavily from the processional pacing of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” McCluskey even flirts with an Ian Curtis impression, scraping his lower register to sing, “We’re walking on air / We’re taking our time / But God only knows this isn’t reason or rhyme” like a man who’s about to give up for good. And judging by OMD’s output post-Dazzle Ships, he did.