A Phoenix of Perfect Pop Pastiche
Critic Fredric Jameson has claimed that pastiche is the hallmark of postmodern art forms. In Jameson’s use of the word, pastiche refers to a cannibalization of history to create a bricolage of allusions to past cultural forms and texts. For example, the appropriation of Transformers and Strawberry Shortcake symbols by the Hot Topic set, a generation too young to remember these landmarks when they were new. There is, however, a distinct downside to pastiche in this sense, as it indicates an inability to create new ideas. Pastiche is all that is left when originality has been exhausted.
Were Jameson interested in New Order, he’d have a field day with Get Ready, their first new album in almost a decade. From the moment that “Crystal” starts spinning in the CD player until the last refrains of “Run Wild”, a sense of déjà vu surrounds the listener. The new New Order seem to be haunted by the past New Order. If you were to give it a quick and superficial listen, you’d think that New Order had simply cannibalized their own history, run it through a sampler, and called the mix-and-match results a new album. And you’d be missing the point.
Ever since the death of Ian Curtis in 1980, the former members of Joy Division have been something of a legend in music history. Although their earliest efforts seemed to follow Joy Division’s trajectory into the emerging goth scene, Bernard Sumner and company quickly established themselves as a truly new order by spearheading the New Wave scene. With hits like “Blue Monday”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”, and “True Faith” helping establish what would eventually become the quite distinctive “‘80s music” sound, New Order moved beyond their murky and tragic past to become something like post-punk gods. As a part of the modern rock scene, New Order helped popularize dance music with their blend of drum-machine beats, synthesizers and guitar/bass rock chords, becoming one of the most respected techno-pop bands of the decade. By 1990, New Order had become so well established that they were invited to record the theme song (the charmingly cheesy “World in Motion”) for England’s competition in the football (soccer) World Cup. However, 1993 saw New Order’s most successful album, Republic, also become what looked to be their last.
After nearly 20 years together and plenty of interpersonal tension, Sumner was interested in pursuing outside projects such as his work with Electronic, the supergroup he founded with Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Bassist Peter Hook formed two new bands, first Revenge and later Monaco, and the husband-and-wife team of drummer Stephen Morris and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert recorded together as the Other Ones. New Order seemed to have gone out on top, one of the most notable entries of the 1980s and legends among critics, musicians and fans alike.
And then along comes Get Ready. After almost a decade-long break from working together, New Order are back. From any perspective it might seem like a move calculated simply to capitalize on the cachet of their name, as none of the members’ other projects ever came close to the success of New Order. It also might seem like a risky move, given that New Wave is a nearly desiccated corpse dragged across the airwaves of retro-format radio and New Romanticism is hardly en vogue in the age of irony. Indeed, the ghost of Joy Division has proven to be more successful than the band ever was when Curtis was alive, and it probably would have been the case that New Order would have followed in Joy Division’s footsteps as being a posthumous powerhouse of influence.
So it comes as something of a happy surprise that New Order’s latest effort is one of the best albums of their career. Rather than try and return to the now-lightweight dance band that they embodied on Brotherhood or Technique, or try and reinvent themselves as contemporaneously hip in a scene that doesn’t offer many breaks to artists in their late forties, New Order prove that sometimes a band’s revival can have it both ways. On Get Ready, New Order create a new sound out of their own past. Mining the subtleties of melody and rhythm that were so pronounced throughout their career, New Order seem to have crafted themselves anew out of nostalgia and the timelessness of pop sensibility.
Yes, it is, in some sense, pastiche as Jameson would have it, but it simultaneously becomes something original. You hear it right away in “Crystal”, the lead track and first single from the album. The machine-like jangle, the unmistakable signature of Peter Hook’s bass lines, and the tinny, hollow twang of guitars that sounds like early New Order or even… Joy Division? Yup. The most obvious flash of the past on Get Ready is the hint of Joy Division that lingers around many of the tracks, but most obviously the low dirge of the bass line in “Turn My Way” and the opening of “Primitive Notion”. It shouldn’t be too surprising really, considering that even on the Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” you can hear the beginnings of the movement towards what would eventually become New Order. But rather than sound like one particular period of their past on a song-by-song basis, each song incorporates bits and pieces of their history into new compositions. Dance elements fill songs like “Vicious Streak” and “Someone Like You”, but are undercut by Hook’s solo bass lines and Sumner’s twangy guitar. On “Close Range”, the band goes back to the full, shimmering sound that made “Regret” a big single, but updated to include more of the sounds of contemporary electronica.
Get Ready also throws some new elements at the listener, keeping the album from sounding like a New Order mix album. “Slow Jam” and “Rock the Shack” would have been some of the rockiest songs New Order had done in years a decade ago, and now they seem almost pleasantly out of character. Any band from the “Madchester” scene who didn’t acknowledge an influence from fellow Mancunians New Order was deluding itself. So when New Order crank it up a notch and throw back to the dance/rock/psychedelic blend of late ‘80s/early ‘90s British rock, it doesn’t seem all that strange. To pull it off they recruited Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream (who are actually from Glasgow, but whose Screamadelica was contemporaneous with the scene and remains a classic from the era) to join Sumner in a solid guitar groove on “Rock the Shack”.
“Turn My Way” also features ex-Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan in a guitar/vocal accompaniment with Sumner that produces a strangely harmonious result. Corgan has joined New Order as a touring member for the Get Ready tour, replacing Gillian Gilbert on stage while she takes some maternity leave, and it will be interesting to see if Corgan will continue to work with New Order since the results are surprisingly good. Yet, perhaps the most peculiar gem on the album comes in “Run Wild”. While New Order are no strangers to sentimental ballads, the simple indie pop sound of acoustic guitar, plaintive harmonica, and orchestra strings is fairly new territory.
“Run Wild” also shows the difference in Sumner’s lyrics in 2001 versus 1981. An unabashedly un-ironic song, it trips through some almost embarrassingly corny love song lyrics and fades out to a chorus of “Good times around the corner”. This is hardly the dark, mopey band of “Ceremony” and “Blue Monday”. Over the course of New Order’s career you can see the lyrical content progressing from the depressing to the fey, but what makes “Run Wild” seem so genuine is that it is the closing remark on an album that plays in the sounds of New Order past. Twice on the album Sumner alludes to “wanting it to be like it was at the start”, and it seems like the band has done what it could to return to its roots as a chance to start over, using established sounds but a fresh perspective.
But it’s “Crystal” that sums up the whole experience of Get Ready in one song. Incorporating familiar dance elements, drum-machine electronica, Hook’s rich bass, and a jagged guitar line, it’s all of New Order rolled into one bright moment. Twenty years of history condensed into one track, it prepares the listener for the backwards journey through New Order’s past and around into a future where all previous elements are at their disposal that is Get Ready. In the course of this journey, not only do they prove that they can still be relevant and create a great album, but that their ransacking of their history is not the emptiness of Jameson’s pastiche. Rather, New Order rise from the ashes of their own history like a phoenix, something the same yet different, a youth born from the remnants of old age.