No less than 43 years ago, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark ushered in the 80s by releasing one of its perfect singles. ‘Enola Gay’, with its pert, punchy, gleeful instrumental chorus and its lyrics full of post-Hiroshima guilt, made the top ten while nuclear war loomed large over the hopes of millions. We must never ignore the horrors of this world, it seemed to say, but we can counter them with joy every time.
Back in the present, as cracks spread once more across our international relations and our funding-starved cinemas get a boost from Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic of Oppenheimer (is mother proud of Little Boy today?), OMD rise like phoenixes from the mushroom cloud that again haunts our nightmares. And they sound not a day older.
OMD know the soothing power of having a place to come home to as much as anyone. On 1980’s breakup ballad ‘Stanlow’, lead singer Andy McCluskey pours his heart out to the oil refinery of the same name. Despite his disillusionment with fossil fuels he finds reassurance in its presence, knowing it will long outlast any capricious human relationships.
As if to prove their point, their style here is as indistinguishable from its early form as Stanlow refinery itself, and it’s all the better for it. Not only because the past can be a salve, but because those initial hit singles have aged like diamonds. If we’re anything like McCluskey we’re still awaiting the solar power revolution; we’re still living in fear of the bomb; we’re still exorcising these anxieties on the dancefloor as we wave our arms around like the wind turbines we wish would save us.
The moment the opening title track of Bauhaus Staircase surges into life, synths ascending in imitation of its title, it provides an intoxicating flood of nostalgia without being the least bit maudlin or reactionary. Mining hope from his anger towards a government which continues to haemorrhage vital arts funding, McCluskey pledges to ‘kick down fascist art’ as he celebrates the legendary Bauhaus school, closed down by the Nazis in 1933. This, in other words, is exactly what a fan of OMD’s golden age wants.
Hope only has meaning when it’s swimming against something, and OMD’s enduring concern about climate change reaches its apotheosis on the next track, ‘Anthropocene’. Driven by a hammering beat, a text-to-speech voice intones sobering statistics about the rapid expansion of Earth’s population. Addictive hooks can’t sugar the pill completely, even if later in the album ‘Evolution of Species’ sets its references to ecological devastation over a pulsing synth sequence which would make Giorgio Moroder proud.
Still, there is no reductive Malthusian misanthropy here, nor disgust at the creative impulse. Where pop music so often objectifies its human subjects, one of the most touching things about OMD is how they find humanity in artificial objects – art and architecture, street furniture and ships, all treated with unaffected love to an almost anthropomorphic degree.
This could be read as an aversion to everything warm and living, à la Tubeway Army or John Foxx, if those ballads written for real people weren’t so generous. ‘We were all isolated from each other during Covid, concerned for our health and future, but it was also a time of great compassion,’ says McCluskey, speaking of the lockdown years he spent working on this album. ‘Several songs on this album, although it was completely unconsciously, are about love and support in difficult times.’
Track after track, we see OMD bearing this immense compassion out. ‘Look At You Now’, with its triumphant, soaring chorus and a stately synth lead as big as a freighter, couldn’t be much more uplifting. The lyrics of ‘Where We Started’ are as encouraging and uncynical as its gentle melody. Then you get the majestic ‘Veruschka’, one of the closest things on the record to their shiver-inducing slow-motion masterpieces ‘Souvenir’ and ‘Maid of Orleans’, though looking outward rather than in.
Then ‘Slow Train’ kicks into life. Oh boy. Without warning, the time machine OMD have bundled us into turns from 80s DeLorean to 70s TARDIS as they fuse their electronics to a cheerfully brutalist glam stompalong, taking the whispery sensuality which T. Rex perfected and driving a troop of Cybermen over it. It’s as unexpected as it is fantastic.
And we’re not done with this surprise genre shift. If this album is, as the press release suggests, ‘the crowning achievement of their desire to be both Stockhausen and Abba’, the sparkling Eurodisco of ‘Don’t Go’ sits as close to the Abba end of the scale as you can get. It’s proper put-your-hand-on-your-hip-and-wiggle-your-finger-round-the-room stuff, so tuneful and yearning that you can’t believe it’s taken this long for the band to write it. True to its name, as soon as it fades out it’s gone too soon.
Earlier on the record, the adorably beepy ‘G.E.M.’ does something similar, recreating the innocent Tomorrow’s World novelty of synth-pop’s early days by coating a bubblegum riff in electronic candyfloss.
But what of the OMD of ‘Enola Gay’, who have no fear of sticking phrases like ‘Deutsche Bank’ into commercial hits and alchemising Cold War disaffection into pop perfection? ‘Kleptocracy’ sees that version of OMD out in force, calling out political and economic corruption in the USA, Russia, and Saudi Arabia alike. Does our own government escape scrutiny? Of course not. ‘With dirty slogans on the red bus door,’ McCluskey snarls, ‘the narcissists stole the exit’.
It’s appropriate that the final track, ‘Healing’, should be a collaboration. With lyrics by Caroline England and production by Atom TM, it showcases the album’s hand-on-shoulder philosophy more than anything that’s come before. It’s almost hymnal, the kindly advice of the lyrics wrapping the record up perfectly.And so we have Bauhaus Staircase, a stairway to electronic heaven. Along with Hot Chip’s A Bath Full of Ecstasy, this may be one of the most rejuvenating, positive, and big-hearted synth-pop albums of recent years. It’s a monument to the power of empathy and art, and these days, what could be more welcome than that?
Bauhaus Staircase is out now via White Noise – stream or buy from all of the usual places here
Find out more about OMD, including their upcoming UK and EU tour dates on their official website
Review by Poppy Bristow