Mike Oldfield, Return To Ommadawn

by stephenpalmersf

As a huge fan of Mike Oldfield’s first four albums (and some of his other ones) I was both excited and apprehensive on hearing the news of Return To Ommadawn. It is so very tempting for artists to attempt to recapture the magic of their early work, and this must be especially true of unique and much loved musicians like Mike Oldfield.

My first impression of the new album is that Oldfield hasn’t lost any of the melodic gifts he displayed on the early albums. The two main melodies of Part 1 are the equal of those on Hergest Ridge (which, ironically, this album resembles far more than Ommadawn), and another beautiful melody holds much of Part 2 together. Perhaps this melodic rediscovery will free Oldfield to recapture more of the genius he was mining in the ’70s. I confess I’m slightly surprised at this revival, since melodic gifts, even in musicians as extraordinary as Paul McCartney, Elton John and Paul Simon do seem to fade with age. But there’s no doubt that Oldfield still retains his.

The playing is as good as the classic work, with the emphasis on guitars as before. The flutes all sound marvellous and are beautifully played. The synths do mostly sound like modern synths, in comparison with the wonderfully analogue instruments played in the ’70s – although those keyboards are all listed in the extensive instrument list. And the whole thing is beautifully recorded.

As somebody with a natural inclination to the compositional style of Mike Oldfield – a foundation in melody, the use of many instruments, and the use of repetition and variation over long-form pieces – I’m envious of Mike Oldfield’s notional copyright on his style. There’s also the curious fact to consider that those first three albums (and the new one) all have a pastoral quality, which somehow evokes the British landscape. I’m not sure why this should be, but I’m sure it is there.

Most of Oldfield’s fans have been hoping for an album like this for years. I don’t think we should mark him down for following other paths – that’s his right as an artist – but it would be nice to think that the beauty, pastoral quality and melodic invention of Return To Ommadawn could continue into other works. My only criticism would be of the slightly jarring inclusion of ‘On Horseback’ samples at the end of Part 2, but we can probably forgive him that indulgence. Strangely, the vocal sample half way through Part 1 doesn’t have this jarring quality.

While I’m a big fan of such pieces as ‘Moonlight Shadow,’ and others, neither Oldfield nor his legions of fans will ever get away from the immense impact on the national psyche of those first three albums. The new work is both an acknowledgement of that impact and a continuation of it. It was always going to stand or fall on the strength of the melodies, but, thank goodness, those melodies are an original and rather lovely continuation of something that has long been part of our musical heritage.