If Lost Sirens turns out to be the last of New Order, or even of New Order with Peter Hook as a member, it would be a fitting farewell. “You’ve caught me at a bad time / So why don’t you piss off”, goes one of Bernard Sumner’s more (in)famous lyrics. And sure enough, the band has always taken something of a solipsistic approach to their career, to the point where their disinterest and lack of image became an image itself. In this context, a collection of nine-year-old odds’n'sodds, intended for an album that was never completed, sounds about right.
The reason why Lost Sirens has not gone completely under the radar is the context of Hook’s acrimonious departure and the subsequent legal wrangling that led to a lengthy delay of the album’s release. This context is an unfortunate distraction, and it is also crucial.
It’s unfortunate because it shifts focus from the fact Lost Sirens is quite good, better than a set of orphaned songs from a band on the downside of its career has a right to be. You could even say it is the best New Order album since Technique, and you might have a point, if not an uncontested one.
Lost Sirens is made up of songs that were recorded circa 2004, during sessions for the Waiting for the Sirens’ Call album. Ironically, the band felt so much momentum they planned on releasing a rapid follow-up with extra and newly-recorded material. As such, Lost Sirens has a similar overall sound to Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. It’s the sound of an indie/dance band hitting middle age, retaining some grace, and indulging their more basic rock ‘n’ roll tendencies. This latter trait is probably due to the presence of guitarist Phil Cunningham, filling in for the child-saddled Gillian Gilbert.
But there are some important differences, too. Lost Sirens has none of the misguided attempts at then-contemporary radio pop that marred its parent album. No “Jetstream”, in other words. The songs are noticeably tougher, meatier, and even, in the case of the driving electronic rock of “Shake It Up”, meaner. Opener “I’ll Stay With You” is a midtempo, high-strung, blissfully melancholic number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Technique itself. “Hellbent”, which previously appeared on a Joy Division/New Order retrospective, begins life as passive pub rock, but quickly builds into a powerful, hooky chorus. The song uses signature New Order tropes like dynamic female backing vocals, the right mix of moody synths, and Sumner’s way of making you forgive him for truly awful lyrics, with a much more powerful effect than they have had in ages.
Likewise, “Sugarcane” is the band’s best straight-ahead dance track in a long time. “Californian Grass” even finds Sumner trying out a doomy lower register…and it works! True, a too-breezy, inconsequential track like “Recoil” reminds you this is indeed late-period New Order. But even the remixed version of “I Told You So”, the one title reprised from Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, is a worthy improvement. It takes the original dancehall-flavored pop track and turns it into a droning dirge that recalls the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. Lost Sirens is only eight songs long, but that’s not such a big deal when nearly all those songs are good, and you consider a classic, proper album like Low-Life had only eight.
Indeed, put the best songs from Lost Sirens together with the best of Waiting for the Sirens’ Call and you don’t need to qualify those “Best album since…” statements.
And this is why it’s crucial to consider the context of Lost Sirens as Hook’s apparent swansong with the band. His bass work is such an integral part of New Order, you’re constantly reminded of what will be missing if the band record new material without him, as they have suggested. Hook, for his part, has over the last 35 years put out exactly one decent album without New Order, Monaco’s Music for Pleasure in 1997. If you’ve heard New Order’s current bassist, Tom Chapman, play in concert, you know he’s no Hook. Whatever their ego clashes, Hook and Sumner need each other.
Lost Sirens serves as proof that, “bad time” or not, they really need to give it another shot.