From Safety to Where: The Factory Years of New Order

New Order

[NB. Much has been written and said recently over the quality of these collector’s editions. Initial pressings apparently were rife with sonic errors, skips, etc, especially on the bonus discs. The band and label have taken the remarkable and necessary step of issuing a recall so that anyone who got the bad discs can get proper copies. The copies I received for review don’t have any of the errors so diligently catalogued on the albums’ Amazon pages and I haven’t heard any skips — although, as the band pointed out, some of the bonus material is of less than perfect fidelity. The following essay is more focused on the band and their music than the particulars of this particular reissue, but caveat emptor: should you be obtaining these, make sure you are getting post-recall versions.]

“No reason ever was given”

The biggest and most understandable aesthetic misstep New Order ever made was changing their band’s name one album too early. Obviously, after Ian Curtis’ suicide remaining the same would have been intolerable — I’m not claiming any error in morality, taste, judgment, or discretion. And maybe their situation circa Movement was just untenable no matter what the band decided to do. Certainly, calling it the first New Order album seems to be going too far, and calling it the last Joy Division record seems not far enough.

What makes Movement so striking is that it’s a hybrid of two approaches — loosely, Joy Division’s musical aesthetic and New Order’s lyrical/emotional one — and as such fits uneasily in either camp. As much as I love them, Joy Division and especially Ian Curtis were rapidly approaching a stylistic cul de sac that would have been inescapable (and there’s evidence to suggest such a direction is exactly what Curtis, with his love of rock myth, intended). It’s important to note that Curtis wasn’t alone in directing and embracing the band’s tone: Bernard Sumner has spoken quite movingly about how soul crushing life and work in Manchester were for the band before things took off, and that to him Joy Division’s music “was about the death of my community and my childhood.” Shackled to a desk job he hated, envisioning being stuck there for the rest of his life, is it any wonder that their music only opened up once they could quit their day jobs?

But above and beyond all that you had Curtis, Schopenhauer’s darkest acolyte (whether he knew it or not), singing songs of futility where it’s not so much that you won’t get what you want, but rather the realization that getting what you want never improves anything. What makes Movement odd for Joy Division fans (and what ensured it had a horrible reputation for many years) is that Sumner can’t and won’t tap into the death drive, that absolute “No” that Curtis found so compelling. Movement is a good, maybe even great dismal post-punk album, but the foggy atmospheres and lyrical focus on confusion and hurt put it a million miles away from what New Order would become. At the same time, the shift from an introverted denial of life to an extroverted embrace of it — even if at first this move was only from nihilism to despair — means that Movement is in some ways a much rawer album than anything Joy Division did. Joy Division’s music is always deeply skeptical about human contact (even on a song like “Atmospheres”, the most overtly reaching-out song in their oeuvre), but already on their first album New Order staked out different ground. Sumner is often confused by the Others he addresses, or hurt, or angry, but there is always that Other to address in the first place.

But if that tension makes New Order’s debut a good solid album, the bonus disc included on the new double-disc reissue of Movement shows in striking contrast the great band they were about to become. Of the five albums, Movement seems the most like the work of two wholly separate acts, and given the chronology of the music within Movement, seems less like a case of poor track selection and more like a deliberate gesture (one that ends with, as the song title suggests, “ICB”). New Order even saved the most explicitly Joy Division-esque track for the bonus disc. “In a Lonely Place”, one of several early New Order tracks to have Curtis-sung versions floating around, is far more forbidding than the dense, sober Movement, but most of the material here marks a sharp change from the sonic texture of the debut. “Ceremony”, “Procession”, “Everything’s Gone Green”, “Temptation” — even when the words are still tinged with sadness there’s an incredible uplift to the music, and when Sumner focuses on more positive emotions (particularly on the still incredible “Temptation”) the effect is rapturous.

The difference, of course, is that instead of the kind of dour post-punk music already popular in the early ’80s (the distance between Movement proper and an album like Seventeen Seconds is shorter than you might think), these songs begin exploring the hybrid forms New Order would do much to explore and popularize. Their second album, Power, Corruption & Lies, still a watershed in the band’s career, sealed the transformation. “Blue Monday” (present on the bonus disc) may have been their breakthrough, but it’s the opening “Age of Consent” that melds Gillian Gilbert’s synthesizers and Steven Morris’ skittering drum work with Peter Hook’s indelible bass and Sumner’s pop craftsmanship most emblematically. This hybrid didn’t come about from conscious choice so much as tensions within the group (if the essays in these reissues are anything to go on, Peter Hook in particular has always been more interested in the rock side of things), but like all truly great bands, New Order not only made their contradictions and stresses work, but made them essential.

Power, Corruption & Lies may not have been quite the beginning of what Neil Tennant has referred to as the “imperial phase” of New Order’s career, but it certainly marked the consolidation of their power. Aside from the seminal “Blue Monday”, the other singles and versions collected here (most originally rounded up on the sadly un-repolished Substance collection, which is still probably the novice’s best first stop) are energetic but a bit unpolished (the worst that you can say about a track as great as “Thieves Like Us”). Again, the selection of extras goes to show that New Order are, if anything, a bit underrated in terms of track selection — like Movement, P,C&L may not feature every great song from the era, but functions better as an album as a result.

After one album that was straight up rock music, albeit of an off-kilter kind, and another that was the closest the band ever got to synth-pop, however, the band would be sufficiently swamped with their success — and the possibility of attaining more, especially in America — that their next album seemed, for the first time, a bit muddled.

“I always try, I always miss”

Low-life isn’t a bad record, by any stretch of the imagination. Any album that includes versions of “The Perfect Kiss” and “Sub-culture”, two of the best songs New Order has ever produced, is hard to argue with. It’s also their most uneven and (stylistically, at least) scattered, veering from the cowboy/ghost-story song “Love Vigilantes” (you too will believe that the band can pull off harmonica!) to the Tangerine Dream-ish instrumental “Elegia” (the full 17-minute version on the bonus disc here is certainly one of the more revelatory tracks, for better or worse). And the distinction between the album versions of “The Perfect Kiss” and “Sub-culture” and the remixes found on Substance, and now the bonus disc, highlight what had changed for New Order, and what makes the album less satisfying than Power, Corruption & Lies.

Whereas the album-oriented New Order and the dancefloor New Order coexisted in dynamic but productive tension around the time of Power, Corruption & Lies, Low-life shows the dancefloor side overtaking the band’s albums in power and effect. The P,C&L-era material mostly stays away from the album tracks, but on Low-life both “The Perfect Kiss” and “Sub-culture” take prominent place on the bonus disc in significantly reworked and improved form. The former was already sublime, but given a full 12” worth of time to work with and some of Gillian Gilbert’s most euphoric synthesizer work to date, “The Perfect Kiss” starts to really live up to its name. And the mixes of “Sub-culture” take what was a promising but halting album track about the pains of isolation and smear it over the band’s most ebullient setting yet. Sumner’s vocal on the original was awkwardly paced, but here, shadowed by backing vocalists, string stabs, and a much groovier rhythmic undercarriage, “Sub-culture” becomes not just an album but a career highlight.

Similar transformations would feature prominently on the band’s next three albums, which argues strongly for a remastered, maybe even reconceived version of the band’s great Substance compilation, because it’s these lengthy, joyous explorations that allowed New Order to do really revolutionary work in the ’80s. It helps that these tracks remain amazing dance music, and a properly curated selection of the band’s best 12” remixes (one that avoids the redundancies, instrumental versions, and so on that even Substance suffers from) might finally give New Order their due as the best band of their era, and the one that most strongly and elegantly understood the art of the 12”. Next to these perfectly paced creations (where even a lesser track like “State of the Nation” shines), having an album version of a song like “Sub-culture” is embarrassingly redundant.

Their next album, Brotherhood, returns to the band to album-length greatness, but in the opposite direction than Low-life might make one expect. The band’s rock side fully catches up to the genius exhibited on their 12”s. Except for “Bizarre Love Triangle” (which is sui generis enough that it’s hard to mind the way it sticks out), Brotherhood is a tightly focused set of songs that sort of picks up the post-punk torch again, but in a way that acknowledges and works with the grasp of euphoria both sonic and lyrical that the band had developed over the years. The result is the best album that New Order-qua-rock band has ever made, tightly plotted and played, and an immensely satisfying 37 minutes (the North American CD issue and this version appends the good-not-great 12” mix of “State of the Nation”, which is both jarring and outdone by the “Shame of the Nation” mix on the Low-life bonus disc — you can’t win them all). The likes of “As It Is When It Was” and “Broken Promise” work with almost no reference to the band’s then-recent work, and gratifyingly the non-album singles collected here maintain the high level of quality seen during the Low-life era. It’s a mark of the band’s amazing level of productivity and quality during these years that the likes of “True Faith” and “1963” never showed up on a proper album.

Brotherhood was in some ways a last gasp for the band’s less-dance-oriented side, or at least its high point. New Order continued to balance their various sides and tendencies (even after the albums being reissued now, as on 1993’s unjustly maligned Republic), and often to great success, but they would never release an album as sonically consistent, or as solid, as Brotherhood again.

“It takes years to find the nerve to be apart from what you’ve done”

By the time of the last album of the band’s imperial phase, 1989’s masterful Technique, New Order had come a long way. Even on Power, Corruption & Lies, there could still be something tentative about the band’s sound, a sense that they (especially Sumner and his vocals) were feeling their way forward. This album was the sound of a band fully confident in what they could do, one that had not just mastered their idiom, but that practically created it.

Technique may be much more divided than Brotherhood, but it manages to marshal its differences in such a way that, along with Power, Corruption & Lies, it’s New Order’s most emblematic album, as well as one of their best. “Fine Time” and “Round & Round” move even further into the disco/techno sound that the band had become so adept at crafting (and that Bernard Sumner would form Electronic to more fully devote his time to), while “All the Way” and the amazing “Run” are both the equal and stylistic equivalent of anything from Brotherhood.

It’s a shame that for once their non-album work wasn’t its equal. Except from the bonus disc for Power, Corruption & Lies (which mostly suffers from having too many similar versions of too few songs), Technique is the one case where the bonus disc of these editions doesn’t at least equal the original album in quality. The remixes of the album tracks are fine, but now that the band can make the songs transcendent in the first place, they’re not revelatory or necessary as they were with Low-life, and the few non-album tracks (“MTO”, “Best & Marsh”, the overrated “World in Motion”) are underwhelming. Maybe this looks forward to the hiatus the band would take, the fact that their imperial phase ended here (albeit with a bang) — in any case, it can’t overshadow how accomplished and varied Technique itself is. Importantly, the thread of melancholy that New Order has trafficked in since the Movement days is still present and affecting (especially on “Run” and, of course, “Love Less”), but now the music buoys up those sentiments, leading to the lump-in-throat, everything-will-be-fine feeling New Order have always been so good at evoking. That they could now switch from that to something like “Round & Round” without a pause or hitch is the band’s real genius, and the full sweep and glory of their accomplishment — from the static gloom of Movement and “In a Lonely Place” to the happy, confident likes of Technique and “Run” — cannot be underestimated.

RATING 9 / 10