It’s tough going when a band, especially a new band, is defined primarily by what it is not. However, this situation seems to have been Bad Lieutenant’s destiny from the moment its formation was announced.
What you have here, of course, is New Order without bassist/badass Peter Hook, whose falling out with Bernard Sumner broke up that band. Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Phil Cunningham, step right up. No one seems to remember poor Gillian Gilbert, the New Order keyboardist/guitarist for whom Cunningham was a replacement of sorts. Also, as the ringleader Sumner has made clear, what you’re not getting from Bad Lieutenant’s debut album, Never Cry Another Tear, is dance music and synth pop. That is because this is not Sumner’s upcoming solo album, which he’s working on with dance producer Stuart Price.
Most everyone who cares to weigh in would agree that New Order is preferable to no New Order. And, after all these years, many would rather take a listen to Sumner’s first-ever solo album than another guitar-wielding band venture. That’s two strikes against Bad Lieutenant before you’ve even heard a note.
But do you really even need to hear a note in order to know precisely what Never Cry Another Tear sounds like? If you’ve followed Sumner’s career at all over the last 20 years, then, no, you don’t. If you were told Never Cry Another Tear represented “Bernard Sumner’s guitar-oriented side project”, you could take it from there. Never mind that Bad Lieutenant is technically not a side project, as the mother band has split, apparently for good this time. Again, if you’ve the slightest bit of background knowledge, you know what this means.
You know, for example, the songs are fairly good-natured, generally winning, and mid- to uptempo, if short on dynamics. You imagine they are melodic enough, though rarely substantially more than that. There’s a single or two that will sound good on the radio, if anyone playlists them, but the rest of the album sort of congeals into a pleasant yet undistinguished mass. You can almost picture Sumner at the mic, strumming his guitar emphatically, doing that bouncing/heaving thing he does, getting into a groove, while delivering often cynical, sometimes goofy, yet ultimately optimistic lyrics about a relationship or way of life. Why, there you have it! The video for the lead single, “Sink Or Swim”! And, yes, the song is plenty melodic and winning and Sumner-iffic.
In short, Never Cry Another Tear offers up no surprises. If anything about it is startling, it’s that it’s actually more good than bad. Beyond the sunny, unbridled energy of “Sink Or Swim” lies the more edgy rock of “Twist of Fate” and “This Is Home”, trafficking in the irresistible melancholy that’s always been Sumner’s trump card. There’s also a pretty nice ballad, “Runaway”. And, bless him, Sumner just can’t deny where he’s from. “Poisonous Intent” has guitars, sure, but at heart it’s a chugging electro-disco adventure with Morris’ no-nonsense drums and that synth lead Sumner’s been using since about 1985. Bring it on!
Give Sumner credit. At least he’s trying to come up with a storyline for Bad Lieutenant that doesn’t involve his former band. To that end, he’s added guitarist/vocalist Jake Evans, a friend of Cunningham’s from the Manchester-area town of Macclesfield. Evans sings backup and takes the lead on a few tracks. Sumner’s wish to share the spotlight with a younger, relatively unknown talent is a show of magnanimity. Also there’s the fact that Evans’ thick, perpetually yawning voice sounds more than a little like Jimi Goodwin from fellow Mancunians, Doves. Sumner and his previous bands, Joy Division, New Order, and Electronic, are all inextricably linked to Manchester and its pop/rock heritage. Judging by the staccato drum beats and languid chorus of “Summer Days” — and the plaintive melody, not to mention the very title, of “Shine Like the Sun” — Doves are the quintessential Manchester rock band in 2009.
Doves isn’t the only musical reference that hangs over Never Cry Another Tear. Maybe it’s just coincidence that you can superimpose “Sink Or Swim” over “What Do You Want From Me”, a 1997 hit from Peter Hook’s own “not New Order” band, Monaco. Or that the chorus of “Twist of Fate” recalls New Order’s own recent “Waiting for the Sirens’ Call”. It’s certainly no coincidence that “Twist of Fate” features the album’s first, but not only, high-pitched, pseudo-Hook bass riff.
Really, though, you can’t begrudge Sumner his own past or the legacy it’s left. Such is the blessing/curse of surviving and thriving in the music business for over 30 years. When you strip all that away, though, Never Cry Another Tear is a promising debut from a new band that’s still searching for an identity all its own.