Review Summary: The architects of something truly beautiful and clever. A perfect example of how to balance experimentation and commerciality.
If there’s only space for one OMD album in your collection; let it be ‘Architecture & Morality’ - undoubtedly the English synthpopers finest outing, and one of the finest in the entire 80s electro-pop gaggle. Perfectly balancing experimentation with sparkling, synthpop chart hits; ‘Architecture & Morality’ creates a consistent and flowing tracklist that blends together cohesively, yet still manages to have standout moments that work as effectively on their own, as they do as part of a single, album-based experience.
Where previous (and succeeding) OMD records may have failed to some extent, was in the lads misguided stance on whether to aim for the top 10 or sink into an cultish, arty setting. ‘Architecture & Morality’ addresses this issue to a thrilling standard, throwing in instrumental, mood setting pieces like the sombre yet lovely ‘Sealand’ and the mechanical, broody shuffle of the title track to pace the album, and to cap off the blasting pop classics with dabs of something more pensive and experimental. The set even kicks off with the superbly un-commercial, ‘The New Stone Age’, that begins with an odd scratchy sound, before giving way to a wall of percolating, nervous synthesisers; a distorted, jagged acoustic guitar riff, and twitchy screams of the chorus “Oh my God / what have I done this time?”. ‘The New Stone Age’ couldn’t be any more appropriate an opener for the album in regards to setting the bar and overall vibe of the album - remaining catchy and memorable yet un-conventional and arty.
When the scared-to-its-wits opener draws to close, the album shifts to a completely new mood - the fresh, cooling pop charm of ‘She’s Leaving’ and then to the #3 hit 'Souvenir'. The latter is an exquisitely gorgeous classic, with gentle vocals, a feather-soft synth riff and hushed hints of the Mellotron choral sounds that permeate throughout the record. The group used a Mellotron heavily throughout recording, and it crops up in the background of most tracks. After taking in the nine tracks on offer, one can only reach the unreserved conclusion that it proved to be a strike of genius, as the refreshing, icy choral tones help tie everything together, and when combined with infectious synth lines, and OMD’s artistic vision, it all comes together to create a beautiful, consistent atmosphere, that leaves most tracks feeling pleasingly connected and close, despite their diversity. This concept is best witnessed on numbers like the anthemic ‘Joan of Arc’. Opening to a gentle, fluctuating choral hum, before washes of invigorating synth flood the track with an overriding anthemic feel (especially when married to the infectious vocal hook “without me”); the track builds on its simple opening with strong vocals and a subtle, rising melody that gets fuller and more glorious as it reaches the end of its three and a half minute, pop setting.
Truth be told, the album is, track-for-track, one of the strongest and most accomplished efforts the synthpop genre has ever produced. To be honest, the ‘synthpop’ tagline sells the album short, somewhat, as it suggests ‘Architecture & Morality’ is a collection of bouncy, electro-pop nonsense when it is, in fact, far from that assumption. Not to say that OMD don’t do electro-pop supremely well; just listen to ‘Georgia’ - at little over 3 minutes and featuring perhaps the most unashamedly, upbeat synth beats ever witnessed; it almost unnoticeably showcases the bands ingenuity with a bouncy, insanely catchy tune, that serves as a mask for the subtle, building background melody which comes to the forefront in the last 20 seconds of the track - all wobbly, unnerving synths and voices pushed so far back in the mix, they become inaudible, ending on, what is for 80% of its runtime an extremely jovial affair, on an odd, gloomy low - something which repeated listens helps articulate with close listening to the building background melody and ambiguous lyrics.
But what makes the album really special is the fact that it feels more important than the said ‘synthpop’ constraints would have you believe. Its aged extremely well, and the power of hits like ‘Joan of Arc’ still ring true. It’s far too considered and beautifully executed to be brushed off as an unnecessary product of electro-pop cluttered 80s Britain - it’s too clever, subtle and, more than anything else, gorgeous, to be ignored. A cohesive album that is extremely consistent in not only its tone, but also its quality; ‘Architecture & Morality’ is one of the great gems that many may have overlooked or missed - and that is simply a crime. If you’re unsure about the pretentiously named Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, or whether this record is worth the time; one can only plead to you as a fan of great music to another, to give it a chance - and if you’re a fan of electro-pop at any level, you may find that that chance may be one of the most satisfying you ever took.