This week, the music world might be distracted by the release of Vampire Weekend’s much anticipated second album, Contra. However, what January 12th, 2010 will be remembered for, years from now, is the release of OK Go‘s Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. Five years after their second album Oh No broke the Internet with funky and fun, danceable pop rock, Chicago’s fab-four have returned with a master stroke. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is the music your radio dreams of playing — when skies were brighter, pop rock and art rock existed and intermingled side-by-side on the airwaves, beautiful sounds poured from car stereos and radios on windowsills out into the neighborhoods, and young minds were filled with intelligent music. The spirit of artsy pop rock has, at long last, been resurrected.
Music has been in a very good place lately. The return of synthpop, bands such as the aforementioned Vampire Weekend doing Paul Simon proud with musical fusion… musicians are returning to old ideas and giving them new life. As a result, modern music has become diverse and exciting for the first time in years. Since their formation in 1998, OK Go have never been shy about their influences while always keeping their sound unique and modern. The band’s overwhelmingly fun music and wild performances have served them well, placing them on the line between mainstream and alternative. With their third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, OK Go combine their past efforts with their earliest musical influences to harness the power of 80’s pop rock albums — but the band hasn’t gone the popular path of retro-emulation. No, this is a return to a musical status quo. OK Go have discovered what makes albums like Speaking in Tongues, Songs From the Big Chair, Purple Rain, and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me great: a forgotten formula for balancing experimentation with pop sensibilities.
“We all grew up on 80’s radio and MTV,” said OK Go bassist Tim Nordwind, in his interview with CoS. “At the time, it was a much more eclectic mix of music. It was everything from Prince, to Talking Heads, to Michael Jackson, to David Bowie all existing at the same time. To me, that’s what our record sounds like. It’s a mix of the art-rock of Talking Heads and David Bowie, but the fun soul-pop of Prince and Michael Jackson.” It turns out that he was completely right. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky has a feel to it akin to the great, artistically-inclined pop rock albums of the 80’s, but without a retro aesthetic. It’s the craftsmanship of the album, the variety of music, the originality of the sound, the power of the songs balancing against each other that begs it to be compared to older albums, even though it sounds nothing like them.
From the glitchy, grinding opening of “WTF?” the modernity of Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is clearly stated. The song is musically harsh with a couple whimsical dashes such as hand claps and chimes. The only softness in the song’s static comes from lead singer Damian Kulash’s distinctive voice, while his lyrics spell out a bender of romantic confusion: “I’ve been trying to get my head around what the fuck is happening.” The mid-point of the song offers a guitar solo reminiscent of a wasp attack; meanwhile, cow bells clang in the background. Suffice it to say, the album is full of surprises. “This Too Shall Pass” is a triumphant drum and bass heavy celebration of overcoming hardships. The track has a massive, marching, open-skied sound with gigantic echoing vocals (as emphasized in their recent video for the song with the Notre Dame Marching Band). This song doesn’t just pump you up, it makes you want to pole vault. “This Too Shall Pass” is the first of the album’s “anthemic” tracks and it is immediately followed up by another anthem, “All is Not Lost”. “All is Not Lost” works drama and emotive rock ‘n’ roll power like a classic U2 track, complete with a dream rock-style guitar solo. Track two and three make up a short song-cycle of overcoming the odds: determination in the face of adversity (“This Too Shall Pass”), followed by the confidence to persevere (“All is Not Lost”). While placing these two similarly-themed tracks next to one another might seem to be a heavy-handed move at first, the combination of the two is quite beautiful.
The following track, “Needing/Getting” falls more in line with “WTF?”’s unconventional attitude. It looks back at the hopeful anthems before it with an angry cynicism, “needing is one thing, and gettin’, gettin’s another”, while setting off against the somewhat goofy dialogue of “WTF?” with self-criticizing lyrics such as, “it don’t get much dumber than tryin’ to forget a girl when you love her”. The track is ripe with Pixies-influenced sublime surf rock guitar and moments of discordance, but ends in a melancholy wake of ambiance and guitars as Kulash somberly asks of the woman who wouldn’t have him, “When? Where? Why not now? Why not me?” That sad note bleeds into one of the most surprising tracks on the album, “Skyscrapers”. “Skyscrapers” is a soulful R&B track full of subtle and funky energy as each member of the band demonstrates his prowess on the low-key. Kulash summons a very distinct Prince influence on this song – keeping things squeaky, simple, and sexy for most of the track until he explodes with a tortured wail of “I was blind” as though he were The Artist himself.
The transfer from “Skyscrapers”’ minimalist rock to the acidic funk rock of “White Knuckles” is an amazing kind of jarring. This track is all the greatest dance elements from the OK Go catalog distilled into one gorgeous and all-new technicolor joyride. You will dance. “I Want You So Bad I Can’t Breathe” is hip-shaking ballad for lustful stalking through the streetlamps and onto the dance floor. It’s simple tracks like this that really emphasize what a landmark Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is for the band. You’ve heard OK Go do songs like this before, and they’ve been good, but they’ve never been this good. You can hear the band level-up. Just as you’re having that thought -– bam! “End Love” starts in with some of the slickest simple synths you’ve heard in ages. There’s a Cure-style simplicity to the instrumentation (an achievement in itself), exhibiting a restraint few have these days when working with synthesizers. The usual inclination is to go all out, but in “End Love”, there’s a perfect balance to the very self-aware synth usage and OK Go’s own stylings. “Before the Earth Was Round” reemphasizes just how different everything about Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is from OK Go’s previous albums -– it’s a vocoder-voiced Kulash narrating a creation myth. The unusual narrative track serves as a beautiful interlude into another surprise: an acoustic track.
“Last Leaf” is a lovely and very simple acoustic love song, just Kulash’s voice and acoustic guitar. While the song isn’t incredible by any means, it’s a very distinctly different sound that furthers what “Before the Earth Was Round” began – a section of slow tracks. In this, OK Go display the diversity of sound they’re capable of, and do so with incredible execution. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is a phenomenally well-rounded album. “Back From Kathmandu” sounds more like some weird spawn of Radiohead and Dream Academy than an OK Go track — circus melodies, tubular bells, hand claps, and eerie organs abound. After “Kathmandu” has lullabied you, “While You Were Asleep” rocks you with a disquieting dream fueled by southern rock and some fun instrumental additions. With that the quiet of the album subsides to make way for the grand finale. “In the Glass” is a layered, grungy tumult that could be mistaken for Menomena rather than OK Go. The circular ending chant, “every day is the same, we’re praying for rain/And when it finally came…” couples the album’s hopefulness with its lean towards the inevitability of being beaten down at you strive to move uphill.
Of the Blue Colour of the Sky takes its name from the much longer title The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky, a pseudo-scientific text from the nineteenth century. The author, A. J. Pleasonton, patented an unusual wellness concept which rose to international practice before it was debunked, though he still believed in it. You can hear Nordwind tell the full story in the interview, but what the album takes away from it is this: “He found something to believe in and he believed in it, whether it was right or wrong… Our record is about trying to have hope in a situation that seems pretty hopeless. Looking for reasons to be happy and trying to be happy even when you’re not.” Much like the pseudo-science that inspired its title, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky has a quality, an energy if you will, that has been long-dormant in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a secret that’s been locked away for some time, but OK Go has unlocked it. The best of both worlds, art rock and pop rock, not quite indie, not quite alternative, every track a unique experience… OK Go is in a rare position these days, a conflict that works very well for them – pop stars with art cred or art rockers with pop accessibility. Their choice is the same that the album makes: Find a balance between all the conflicting aspects and overcome the odds. Hopefully, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky will do what its predecessors did over two decades ago – fill the airwaves with all sorts of beautiful music.