By 1993, the legendary status of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was already well established. Actually, that was probably true in 1983 as well. But just a couple of years earlier, they had emerged from the pop wilderness with an excellent couple of singles (Sailing on the Seven Seas and Pandora’s Box) and a pretty decent album in the shape of Sugar Tax.
The follow-up Liberator, released twenty years ago this week, was sadly less inspired, to the point where even the band themselves seem to have largely forgotten it now. Is that fair? Let’s find out…
The first track was also the lead single, a track called Stand Above Me. I can only imagine they picked this as first single because it sounds entirely how OMD are meant to sound. But Enola Gay it is not – it rolls along pleasantly enough for a few minutes, but there’s really very little special about it, and even mixes by the likes of Phil Kelsey on the single do little to save it. It didn’t even make the top 20, and that mattered in those days. I think perhaps Andy McCluskey has recognised this now, as it never seems to appear on any of their greatest hits compilations.
Everyday, co-written at some stage with then-absent founder member Paul Humphreys, was the final single from the album, and was an unmitigated flop. It’s equally pleasant, although has not aged well – it sounds a lot more than twenty years old now. But after this things start to look up somewhat. King of Stone is up there among OMD‘s better moments, a pleasant slow track with a bouncy synth line and some unusual lyrics.
Dollar Girl is a traditional uptempo OMD-by-numbers track with a now horrifically dated synth line to back it up. When the pads turn up for the first bridge you can’t help but chuckle, but its predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When OMD are doing what they do best, they really aren’t that bad.
Which makes the next track even more of a surprise – after an early false start and a couple of very predictable tracks, the album was starting to get rather dreary. But Dream of Me (Based on Love’s Theme) is a real surprise. Not only is it nothing like anything they’ve done before, but it’s also really, really good. Far and away the best track on the album, you have to wonder why they didn’t try things like this more often. Of course, it’s (Based on Love’s Theme), by Barry White, who gets a producer’s credit. McCluskey’s voice may not have the power of White’s, but it works pretty well nonetheless. As second single it performed even less well than the first, but it’s still rightly the one track that’s normally picked to represent this album on any passing greatest hits albums.
It was always going to be a downward spiral from this point, and such it is. Sunday Morning, like their take of Neon Lights on the previous album, is a harmless but unnecessary Velvet Underground cover. Agnus Dei sounds a bit like it’s going to be another song about Joan of Arc, but turns out to be much less interesting.
Then, barely minutes into Side B, the album hits its real low point with the dreary attempt at “being contemporary” Love and Hate You followed by Heaven Is. Heaven Is is is an out-take from their heyday back in the early 1980s, but really just serves as a reminder why some editorial decisions should be honoured for good – some unreleased tracks should remain unreleased.
After that, Best Years of Our Lives comes as a pleasant, if distinctly cheesy, surprise. What it lacks in production is more than made up for by being an excellent song. Even hidden amongst the worst of their dross, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are still able to surprise with moments like this. It’s a great song, which with a proper producer really could have been very special. From there you just get a couple more pleasant-and-harmless tracks, and you’re at the end already.
It would be another three years before OMD finally came back and did something interesting with Universal. Liberator isn’t a bad way of filling the gap, but neither is it anything special. But then, even that is a whole lot better than anything they managed in the late 1980s, and at least this album has Dream of Me to make it all worthwhile.
You can find this album through all the usual outlets, including iTunes here. But in reality you might just want to stick with their greatest hits, of which Messages is the most recent incarnation. It’s got Enola Gay on it.
Edit: due to my total failure to pay attention when writing this post, the title originally called the album Stand Above Me. This has now been corrected, and it only leaves me with a bit of egg on my face…