Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Architecture & Morality (1981)

Cueing up Architecture & Morality is another one of those aural equivalents of Proust’s cake: there I am, an awkward, angular, unhappy teenager listening to this suite of beautifully awkward, angular, unhappy songs. Go figure.

In one sense the sense of connection I felt for this album back then seems unlikely: the fit between two Catholic-raised Liverpudlian musicians and one atheist-raised, culturally-Protestant southener is hardly exact. The album’s tutelary spirit, Joan of Arc, is ‘a little Catholic girl who’s fallen in love’: which is to say, she is both the historical figure, a medieval stained-glass-window version of womanhood and purity — an individual out of time, in other words, whose lover is God — and a 1980s English-Catholic girl who has foolishly fallen for one or other unreliable local bloke. Teenage me did not have much to do with girls of any stripe (not for lack of desperate yearning, I might add) and little Catholic girls less than most. In fact both key members of the group wrote ‘Joan of Arc’ songs for the album: Paul Humphreys’ being more quotidian, Andy McCluskey’s, with its intermittently punching-drum fills and soaring synths, more melodramatic. Humphreys’ Joan of Arc is a given to the world, I suppose by God (‘a face on a page, a gift from above’) but she’s also a regular girl, prone to the romantic mistakes that afflict us all. McCluskey’s Joan is more distant, a historical or perhaps actually a hypothetical rather than a real person: remote, angelic (‘If Joan of Arc had a heart would she give it as a gift/To such as me who longs to see how an angel ought to be?’). I’m not sure teenage Adam had any understanding of the ways eros might be filtered through religion in the way these two songs are saying it can be, but he was aware, in however inchoate a way, that eros is more than mere animal gratification — that it cathects transcendence, that it is more than just physical and more than just psychological. He wouldn’t have used the word spirit for this, but his shadowy sense of that might explain his love for these songs. Now I wonder if there isn’t a pun, hidden in plain sight: Joan of Architecture. Joan of Morality.

Teenage Adam certainly knew what it meant to navigate deracinated, concrete environments — Canterbury, where I was living when I bought this album, had been comprehensively dismantled by the Luftwaffe during the war, the Cathedral alone excepted, and by the 80s had been rebuilt in a combination of brutalist and 60s-commercial stylings, very uglily. He also knew the feeling that though he notionally belonged he actually didn’t belong. ‘Sealand’, a territory that is both of Britain and not of Britain, is where I felt myself to be living (they wrote the song, it seems, about an oil rig, but the principle remains). The shrieks and grumbles of these early sonic experimentation with synthesisers, very expressive of the metal and stone milieu of 1980s urban Britain. Oooo oooo. Clang clang clang.

‘She’s Leaving’ — a gorgeous piece of songwriting that unfolds like a flower (a metallic flower, whose pollen is rust, but nonetheless) — is not only a song about abandonment but, more heartbreakingly, a song about a woman who has put in the hours, who has been patient, who has waited for her partner to come over to her and is finally giving up. That yearning, that sense of the maturity grief, is remarkable in an album made by two songwriters who had just turned 21. Likewise is ‘Souvenir’, a really extraordinary, aching piece of music. It sounds like somebody looking back over a long, crosshatched life; though it was actually created by two lanky kids excited by their new electronic toys. I bought all the subsequent OMD albums, but only one (1982’s Dazzle Ships) even comes close to the brilliance of Architecture & Morality, and as the 80s progressed the band’s output became more chart-single oriented, poppier, much more banal. I wrote about the band for the SF Encyclopedia, as one of a tranche of music entries I did for that esteemed reference organ.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.