published: 9 /
Disorientating latest album and their first without iconic bassist and founder member Peter Hook from New Order
Just what is it that we want from our ageing musicians? The Rolling Stones have been going for fifty years now, and while they aren’t what they used to be, live or on record, they can still put on a hell of a show.
The Stones haven’t changed all that much in their time, shortlived forays into disco notwithstanding, and we love them. David Bowie, on the other hand, has reinvented himself a dozen times in about the same timespan, and we love him for that. Then there are the bands who’ve ploughed the same furrow and have lost what it was that made them special, such as Oasis, whose quality of music dropped pretty sharply after their first two albums.
The latest album from New Order, their tenth studio release, is a strange piece of work. ‘Music Complete’ sounds like New Order and doesn’t sound like New Order, all at once. In fact, what it most strongly calls to mind is Electronic, the “supergroup” side project founded by New Order’s singer Bernard Sumner and the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr. In fact, its sound – polished, metallic, aloof – seems to have been largely directed by Sumner rather than any of the others.
That’s not to suggest that Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert, particularly, haven’t anything to contribute. Far from it – from the group’s previous work, that seems far-fetched. But then this is New Order’s first album without their iconic, statuesque bass player Peter Hook, who called it a day a few years back. It’s also worth noting that this is Gilbert’s first album with New Order since she rejoined the group in 2011, having left it ten years before that. Of the two, though, Hook’s absence is the more obvious one.
You can believe that, especially given the personal acrimony between him and Hook, Sumner wanted to stamp his own sound on the album and make a mark. It certainly sounds like a Bernard Sumner album. In March Hook told 'The Guardian that his son would do a better job of playing bass than Tom Chapman', who’s been playing bass in the band since 2011, and the bassline, that defining characteristic of New Order’s music, is perhaps what’s missing most from ‘Music Complete’.
The sound is heavy in the top half of the spectrum – all synths and snares and vocals, which again appears to have been a definitive stylistic decision to turn a corner from Hooky’s low-slung bass parts. The overall effect, though, is to make the songs feel more ethereal and less worldly than they should. What characterised New Order back in the 1980s and 90s was that they had such a broad appeal: for dance music pioneers who owned one of the world’s most famous nightclubs, they could rock a stadium with the best of them, and for what essentially resembled a rock band, they had as much credibility with the snootiest dance music aficionados as any highly regarded avant-garde DJ. Part of that was undoubtedly the mix of instruments which they got right as soon as they started – whether that was deliberate or by accident, the potent combination of those strong rock basslines with synthetic instrumentation and futuristic vocals was what made New Order what they were.
That broad appeal even extended into the very mainstream: the band recorded one of perhaps five decent football-related tunes in history, in the form of England’s official song for the Italia 1990 World Cup. Although it’s not ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ or ‘True Faith’, ‘World In Motion’ sums up perfectly the basis of the band’s appeal: a supremely catchy tune and that bassline combined expertly with cutting-edge synths (cutting-edge for 1990, however dated the orchestration sounds 25 years later). There was also the voice of Kenneth Wolstenholme, though it would be a stretch to ask him to appear again now. Take one of those elements out and what you have may be brilliant but it may not be New Order as we know it.
It’s true that the sound is also less guitar-heavy than it has been on recent albums, the band having turned more towards their rock side since Gilbert’s departure, and it’s also true that it’s their most electronic work since ‘Republic’, released in 1993. But along the way, something’s been lost.
The timbre of Bernard’s voice has changed – as all voices do over a forty-year singing career, but the effect here is to remove warmth and heart from the music. Take ‘Love Less’, the third track on 1989’s ‘Technique’. It’s far from a happy song, but the vocal wants you to come in out of the cold, sit down and listen to a tale. ‘Plastic’, the third track on ‘Music Complete’, is a similar downbeat song, but the thin, reedy and austere vocal wants to declaim its story to you through a window.
The lyrical missteps grate, too, where once they would have glided over the listener: “living in a/state of grace/where every scholar/means a dollar” on ‘Tutti Frutti’ is one such verse that sounds more profound than it is.
It would be wrong to suggest that ‘Music Complete’ is a bad album – again, far from it. New Order have been going too long – and are just far too good – to make an album that’s anything other than listenable. ‘Plastic’ and the opening number, ‘Restless’, are catchy and demand to be heard, but will they still be in your head in a year’s time? It’s not likely.
The album feels more dour than it probably means to be – between the bad blood around Hook and the new direction and the techno-instrumentation, the overall impression is dystopic rather than hopeful. There are joyful bits, such as the guest spots: Iggy Pop turns up, threatening-growling a Sumner poem throughout ‘Stray Dog’, and Elly Jackson of La Roux provides welcome vocals on ‘Tutti Frutti’.
But it takes until the final track, ‘Superheated’, before we come to the light at the end of the tunnel – it’s an enjoyable and uplifting song, despite its unhappy lyrics, and Bernard’s vocal reflects the major key in which it’s written. For the first time, he seems genuinely joyful, belting out the album’s closing words, “Now that it’s over/it’s over”.
People on the High Line
Nothing But a Fool
Unlearn This Hatred
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