With support from Walt Disco
By rights, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark should be in semi-retirement, performing classics like Enola Gay and Maid Of Orleans on the nostalgia festival circuit like so many peers.
Instead, they’ve created a landmark album worthy of their finest work. Having made one of their most universally acclaimed albums last time out, when 2017’s The Punishment Of Luxury returned Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys to the Top Five for the first time since 1991’s Sugar Tax, the duo have somehow managed to better it. Welcome to Bauhaus Staircase, both OMD’s most explicitly political record and the crowning achievement of their desire to be both Stockhausen and Abba.
The universal love shown for The Punishment Of Luxury meant there were doubts about making a new album at all. “The fans and the critics said: ‘You can put The Punishment Of Luxury up against their best work’ and rated it next to Architecture And Morality or Dazzle Ships,” notes Paul Humphreys. “The reception was so good, we thought: ‘Maybe we should stop now, at the top,’ so the idea of making a new record had some trepidation for us.”
McCluskey agrees, explaining: “We’ve worked hard to rebuild ourselves since reforming, and we’re in a wonderful position where we’re cooler than we’ve been for a long time. We wouldn’t forgive ourselves if we released an album where fans said: ‘Oh no, this is the one where they’re a pastiche of themselves.’ If Bauhaus Staircase is to be our last album, we’re going out with a strong statement.”
The new album’s beautiful film noir ballad Veruschka exemplifies the determination OMD had to make Bauhaus Staircase an album to rank among their finest. McCluskey reasons: “My attitude is like I say in that song: if you’re too afraid to jump off the cliff, you’ll never learn to fly. We couldn’t keep saying: ‘It’s not going to work.’ You have to keep trying, to see where you end up.”
The impetus to kickstart new explorations came during lockdown when, as McCluskey admits: “I rediscovered the power of total boredom.” He acknowledges he was privileged to have that comfort, but being stuck at home took the singer back to his earliest days as a songwriter: “It was like being a teenager, mum watching Kojak and me thinking: ‘Fuck this, I’m going to my room to write a song.’ For the first time since then, there was nothing else to do. It’s good inspiration.”
McCluskey had long wanted to write songs called Anthropocene, Kleptocracy and Bauhaus Staircase. Here was his chance. Humphreys, meanwhile, used lockdown to revisit his stockpile of ideas. “Andy and I never dispose of a song idea,” he laughs. The music for Veruschka dates back to the unmade second album for Onetwo, Humphreys’ short-lived duo with Propaganda singer Claudia Brucken. “I discovered Veruschka, and Andy immediately said: ‘Oh yeah, I’m having that!’ He’s written such a beautiful lyric for it. Anthropocene was Andy’s concept, but he couldn’t think of the right music for it. I gave Andy a cool track I’d found from years ago, and he said: ‘I’m going to abandon my backing track, this is much more interesting.’”
To save anyone Googling, “Anthropocene” is the term for the current era in Earth’s evolution, when mankind is directly affecting it. A spiritual heir of Dazzle Ships’ mordant electro bangers, Anthropocene is a six-minute masterclass in tension as a voiceover starkly intones how mankind is “crushing all diversity” of other species, while essentially remaining a “geological hiccup”. Spoiler alert: the final line is “One million years from now, global human population is zero.”
It's a song where McCluskey’s boyhood dream to become a paleoanthropologist finally gets to roam around in OMD’s music, and is worth the wait. “I’m fascinated by the various human forms over the past millions of years,” he says. “We as human beings are changing the planet in a physical way, creating our own geological epoch.” A laugh. “The current Anthropocene epoch, that’s the sort of thing I write songs about. This stuff is all in my head and comes out in my lyrics. I’m not the average songwriter. Paul’s track was ‘That’s it!’, then became bigger and bigger, a programming journey.”
The ominous narratives on Anthropocene and its companion track, the sinister Evolution Of Species, were achieved by Google’s Text-To-Speak function. “I got bored of vocoders,” smiles McCluskey. “I was looking for alternative ways of putting lyrics into songs that didn’t require me to sing them. The different languages in Evolution Of Species are via Google Translate – I hope it’s done them properly.”
If those songs show OMD’s icily electronic side, then Look At You Now, Where We Started and the stunning closer Healing rival any ballads in McCluskey and Humphreys’ 45-year career. “That’s a constant thread in OMD,” acknowledges Humphreys. “We like our pop side: we’ve been blessed with a knack for writing commercial melodies. But there’s always the deeper side too.”
Where We Started manages to convey a world of empathy and solace in just 34 words. “I had nothing more to say than those lyrics,” nods McCluskey. “It’s a song for someone I care deeply about, saying: ‘I’m sorry you’re hurting. I love you and, if you ever need a hug, let’s go back to page one.’ We were all isolated from each other during Covid, concerned for our health and future, but it was also a time of great compassion. Several songs on this album, although it was completely unconsciously, are about love and support in difficult times.”
Conversely, the clattering, hectic Kleptocracy is OMD’s greatest straight-up protest song. It was written at the start of lockdown but, as McCluskey points out: “References to Trump, Johnson and Putin are sadly still relevant. They just won’t fuck off.” The line “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’ve bought the man you elected” summarises the duo’s disgust at the current state of democracy. “Dazzle Ships was about the Cold War, but we haven’t been so overtly political before,” says Humphreys. “The older we get, the more forthright we get. You have to be politically aware in the current climate, because there’s so much craziness going on that you’re forced into an opinion.”
Kleptocracy’s chewy discourse is wrapped in an absolute earworm. “It’s what we do,” laughs McCluskey. “Enola Gay wasn’t the most palatable lyrical content, but that’s got a very catchy tune.”
Protest is also present in Bauhaus Staircase’s title track. Named after German artist Oskar Schlemmer’s 1932 painting, recreated by Roy Lichtenstein in 1988 for his Pop Art series of classics, it’s a nod both to McCluskey’s love of the Bauhaus era, the power of protest art, and his sadness as a trustee of National Museums Liverpool that Governments tend to cut arts funding just when times are hard and we need our souls nourishing.
“We knew Bauhaus Staircase had to open the album and Healing had to end it,” McCluskey reveals. “Bauhaus Staircase has this energy that grabs you as soon as the record starts. It starts aggressively, then it just builds and builds until it’s a maelstrom of synths and howling vocals.”
The tender Healing is a moment of reflective calm after the myriad emotions preceding it. It’s a rare OMD co-write, with lyrics by McCluskey’s friend, Liverpool singer-songwriter Caroline England, and production from Uwe Schmidt, who records as both lounge star Senor Coconut and glitch artist Atom TM. McCluskey says: “Caroline had said, semi-jokingly, that if I ever have writers’ block she’d write some words for us. I called her bluff. What Caroline wrote works so well that I feel so comfortable singing Healing. We’re big fans of Atom TM, so I sent Uwe the demo of Healing, asking him to make it sound more modern. He took the rather lumpy musical idea I’d had and created a fantastic ambient electro swirl. Healing is such a beautiful song, emotionally very powerful.”
Humphreys and McCluskey envisage Healing as a centrepiece in OMD’s new tour in April, which climaxes with a huge concert at London O2. “That’ll be a landmark, but it’s also terrifying to play such a big show,” admits Humphreys. “We always conceptualise how we look for each album, and we never scrimp on the budget. We love putting on a good show.” McCluskey adds: “Our touring sales have gone up exponentially in the last decade. We’ve been a bit of a secret band, but now that people have had a chance to see us, they tend to come back.”
The new album’s other main external influence is David Watts. Mainly known as a rock producer, who helmed Sheffield band The Reytons’ recent No 1 album What’s Rock And Roll?, Watts mixed Kleptocracy and the raucous glam-tinged explosion, Slow Train. “David chose the right songs to work on,” notes Humphreys. “I’m a clean, electro mixer, whereas David brought some rock elements which enhance those songs appropriately.”
Humphreys ceded mixing the whole album as he became a second-time father two years ago, explaining: “I’ve got the sweetest kid, who’s taken up quite a bit of my time. I don’t want to work quite as hard as I have in the past, as I don’t want my daughter saying to my wife: ‘Who’s that guy over there?’ ‘That’s actually your dad.’”
If real life meant OMD were happy to get help, Bauhaus Staircase remains unmistakably the work of a duo who are still perfectly in sync 45 years after their first gig at legendary Liverpool club Eric’s. They wouldn’t have released the album if it wasn’t up to The Punishment Of Luxury’s exacting standards. “We might be seen as ‘heritage’, but we’re not going to make a new album just so we can have a new logo on our T-shirts,” insists McCluskey. Or, as McCluskey summarises: “I’m very happy with what we’ve done on this record. I’m comfortable if this is OMD’s last statement.”