In 1996, you might have been forgiven for wondering exactly why OMD were still around. It was over a decade and a half since Enola Gay, Paul Humphreys (the one that wasn’t Andy McCluskey) hadn’t been part of the group for nearly half of that time, and chart success wasn’t exactly
Universal does hold some of the answers. The title track, which opens the album, is rather excellent, and despite its poor chart performance (these things mattered twenty years ago) when it appeared as the second single, it does deserve to be remembered. Walking on the Milky Way, the one and only other single, peaked at number 17, giving them their biggest hit since Pandora’s Box in 1991. It’s an excellent song, and definitely deserved better though.
These were rough times for OMD, as the Britpop explosion very suddenly made synthpop very uncool. The sound of Universal does seem to have taken some inspiration from this, as there seems to be a big “rock” feeling throughout much of this album. The Moon & The Sun features a writing credit for the legendary Karl Bartos, and whether it’s his influence or not, it turns out to be a pretty good song too.
If this album is less adventurous than its predecessors, the other side of the coin is that it’s more consistent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that many of the songs stand up too well on their own. The Black Sea, co-written with Liberator-era member Stuart Kershaw, is pleasant, but a bit uninspired.
The writer credits are often more interesting than the actual music. Paul Humphreys turns up for Very Close to Far Away, and you can’t help but feel that if it had been released in the 1980s, it might have been one of their more notable songs. Hidden under their mid-1990s production, it’s nothing special.
Worse than that, at times it’s pretty poor – The Gospel of St. Jude is simply pointless. That Was Then is forgettable too, and it isn’t easy to judge exactly what’s meant to be going on here. Too Late is another Paul Humphreys collaboration, which is quite pleasant, and might even have you nodding along before it ends, but it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.
The big surprise of this half of the album comes with the daftly titled The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You. I’ve no idea what it’s about (honestly, if OMD aren’t writing about Joan of Arc it’s pretty difficult to tell what it’s meant to be about) but the chorus is pretty catchy.
There are moments when they channel their former selves with some success – If You’re Still in Love with Me is another collaboration with former members, and probably could have appeared on an earlier (and better) album quite comfortably. New Head has some echoes of earlier works too – although it might just be the “ABC” lyric.
Closing track Victory Waltz is pretty nice, but you do get the feeling that it’s not going to stay in your memory for long. I remember liking this album, but this time around it just seems empty and entirely forgettable.
At the end of Universal, it feels as though it might be nice to have a couple more of these songs on one of their greatest hits album, but at its best, you can’t help but feel they’re just trying to relive their past. This isn’t an album that I’d be rushing to listen to again.
You can still find Universal through all major retailers.