Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD) has always embraced the future. Formed in 1978 by Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, the duo hobnobbed with post-punk innovators, opening for Joy Division and Gary Numan in its early days, while distinguishing itself through its use of then-cutting-edge technology. As the ’80s progressed and synthesizers became the norm, OMD continued to push their boundaries, with the austere synth-pop of “Enola Gay” giving way to more experimental albums like Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships, then to the plush sounds epitomized by the Pretty In Pink prom jam “If You Leave.” Eventually, the future caught up.
The Punishment Of Luxury follows in the sonic footsteps of 2013's English Electric, in that it’s a gentle upgrade of that sculpted-from-marble early ’80s sound. Songs with more vigorous tempos—the quasi-industrial title track, robot-Jazzercise surge “Art Eats Art,” the Kraftwerkian “Isotype”—are crisp and focused, while dreamier moments such as “One More Time” employ lullaby-like synth latticework. Throughout, the record traces and mirrors OMD’s influence across the decades, at times recalling Yaz’s percolating new wave (“What Have We Done”) and Hot Chip’s playful synth-pop (“Robot Man”).
Lyrically, The Punishment Of Luxury is distinguished by its thoughtful examinations of power dynamics. Several songs chronicle breakups with humans (“What Have We Done”) and technology (“Robot Man”), while others concern the myriad ways by which humans are controlled, whether by each other or the things they create: On the droning “La Mitrailleuse,” the song’s lone repeated lyric (“Bend your body to the will of the machine”) gives way to the sound of gunfire and bombs, while the title track takes a self-satisfied look at greedy leaders getting their comeuppance.
It’s also preoccupied with the complicated relationship humans have with progress. “Isotype” concerns the changing ways people share words, art, and creativity today, lamenting that ephemerality rules, while “Precision & Decay” comments concisely but effectively on the impact of traditional manufacturing decline, using Dearborn, Michigan’s Ford Rouge Factory as an example. As a digitized female voice illustrates the sobering aftermath of the plant’s demise (“The highway of prosperity / To collapse and dismay”), the song shifts to a TV-newscaster-like figure who intones, “There is no such thing as labor-saving machinery.”
In the wrong hands, this kind of thing could come across as heavy-handed or detached, but The Punishment Of Luxury exudes warmth and empathy throughout. It shines through most on the glittering “Ghost Star,” a tender song about longing for a healing love, and hoping that one day, “when all the wild horses have been tamed / You will welcome me to bed.” OMD has always balanced its love of technology with unabashed sentimentality, and here it allows that vulnerability to become even more prominent, mitigating cynicism and crafting a vision of the future that’s clear-eyed, yet hopeful.