New Order Low-Life

New Order’s ‘Low-Life (Definitive Edition)’ Isn’t Quite Definitive

New Order’s Low-Life is a masterstroke of synthpop glory, but keep your expectations of the word “definitive” nice and low for this set.

Low-Life (Definitive Edition)
New Order
27 January 2023

Low-Life (Definitive Edition): the word “definitive” suggests that this edition of New Order‘s third album is the final word on the matter. No other editions need to exist. But does “definitive” mean the same as “comprehensive?” In this case, no. New Order’s back catalog underwent a thorough reissuing campaign back in 2008. The bonus disc for the “Collector’s Edition” reissue of Low-Life was stuffed with things you will not find on this new box set: the John Robie remixes of “Subculture” and “Shellshock”, the songs “Shame of the Nation”, “Let’s Go”, and “Salvation Theme” for the Salvation! soundtrack, and the dub mix of “Subculture” renamed “Dub Vulture”.

So what does this definitive edition come with? For starters, the Low-Life LP is housed in a sleeve wrapped in heavyweight tracing paper, a CD edition that mimics this design, a bonus CD that’s 78 minutes long, two DVDs of live footage, and a huge book. Is it worth the time and money, even if New Order were your favorite band? That depends on which part of the box we focus on. The original packaging of the LP is certainly novel, and the 2023 remaster absolutely leaves the 1985 CD pressing in the dust. Besides being funny and informative, the book is packed with photos of New Order and various artifacts on thick, glossy pages. The DVDs are worth watching simply for posterities’ sake. Anything else you might get out of them is gravy. The only wasted opportunity is the Extras bonus disc. We will get to that momentarily. First, let’s take a brief look at the album itself.

Sandwiched between the New Order’s sophomore release Power, Corruption & Lies and the chart-topping breakthrough Brotherhood, Low-Life is no mere transitional album. New Order shed their Joy Division skin on their second album and finally became a whole new group. Emboldened by the success of the sample-heavy single “Blue Monday”, New Order dove deeper into electronics than before. Like it or not, the musical tag of “dance” would soon become their defining characteristic. No matter how punk they once were or how many post-punk elements New Order threw at any given song, they were part of the dance music movement at this point, and the choice of singles from Low-Life made sure of that.

New Order even returned to the “Blue Monday” drawing board to create one of their most enduring singles, “The Perfect Kiss”. From this point forward, things would change even faster for New Order. Armed with a video for “The Perfect Kiss” directed by none other than Jonathan Demme himself, Low-Life charted around the world and set the stage for their next hit album Brotherhood, with “Bizarre Love Triangle” leading the charge.

Low-Life kicks off with would-be country heartbreaker “Love Vigilantes”, a song about a soldier coming home from the war only to find that his wife committed suicide because she thought he had died in battle. If it weren’t for “Love Vigilantes” and “The Perfect Kiss”, “Sunrise” may very well steal the show with its sleekly built minor-key racket and an ominous warning that “we might be your black sheep, but it’s time you remembered us now”. New Order also stitched together a lovely but unusual instrumental waltz titled “Elegia”, an elegy to no one in particular.” Sub-Culture”, Low-Life’s other single, was yet another solid step towards bringing New Order’s rock format into a new dance era full of crystal-clear synths, syncopated auxiliary percussion, and a driving beat. With eight songs rolling in at 40 minutes, you can’t miss.

Except for one selection, there are no vocals on the Extras bonus disc. Seven of the 14 tracks come with the “Writing Session Recording” parenthetical, sounding like works in progress before singer Bernard Sumner even had a melody to work with. There are two untitled songs here, one of which sounds like the stuttering keyboard effect of “Bizarre Love Triangle” was applied to a doo-wop progression, possibly planting a seed for the future hit.

Most everything else is instrumental mixes of songs from Low-Life. The exceptions are the full-length version of “Sooner Than You Think”, which is a little over a minute longer than the album version, and an extended version of “Elegia” that’s 12 minutes longer than the album version. Those who purchased the 2008 “Collector’s Edition” will already be familiar with this heavily dramatic rendition of “Elegia”, which could have netted New Order a side of scoring incidental music. Aside from that, Extras feels less like an important piece of history and more like an aide for karaoke.

If you want to immerse yourself in some history, go straight to the DVDs and get ready to relive the flawed magic of mid-1980s camera work. Five concerts await you across two discs with enough room left over for the ten-minute video of “The Perfect Kiss” named “The Perfect Film”. The first set was released under the name Pumped Full of Drugs because the band suffered from colds that evening in Tokyo (although we can’t say that recreational experimentation wasn’t involved). Here, the Japanese camera crew become quite creative in how they capture the show. A shot of bassist Peter Hook from underneath over here and a shot of the crowd from behind over there gives the viewer a good overall sense of the stage, crowd, and venue.

When you see the Toronto show towards the end of the second disc, it’s a different story. There is only one camera at work, and it’s positioned at the stage left the entire time. The camera operator does their best to zoom in on Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris every once in a while, but keyboardist/guitarist Gillian Gilbert is at the opposite end of the stage and thus rarely becomes a focal point. You can hear the crowd; you just can’t see them or the venue. Some sets, like the ones in Leuven and Manchester, have to be reconstructed from whatever audio and visual was preserved through the years, even if one didn’t quite sync up with the other. The splices are well executed, though you may think, “wait, didn’t Bernard Sumner not have his guitar just a split second ago?”

Many of these performances share similar setlists, like “Sunrise”, “The Perfect Kiss”, “This Time of Night”, an early instrumental version of “Let’s Go”, and numerous performances of “As It Is When It Was”, a year before its appearance on Brotherhood. On the other hand, only the Toronto crowd got to hear the sample-heavy “586”, and “Blue Monday” might have been on its way out of New Order’s setlists by this point since it appears only twice among the five shows.

There is also an arc of energy to the performances, with the Tokyo one finding New Order at their most shy while the others grow increasingly intense and agitated. Sumner, in particular, is a messy performer. As the energy ratchets up, he spits, yelps, makes his voice change octaves mid-verse, injects profanities into the song lyrics, and even throws his guitar down on stage in front of the group’s home crowd in Manchester. Hook winds up shirtless by the end of at least three performances, but Gilbert remains stoic while Morris works up a sweat while acting as the band’s human metronome.

The book is a quick read, given its size, hardback, with roughly the dimension of a vinyl record sleeve. The story of Low-Life is told as an oral history, with Morris and Gilbert providing most of the details. Studio engineer Michael Johnson offers extra insight into what was happening in the studio, and New Order’s longtime visual designer Peter Saville goes into detail on how he concluded that it was time to put the faces of the band members inside the record sleeve. There are humorous anecdotes (yes, Sumner’s working title for “The Perfect Kiss” really was “I’ve Got a Cock as Long as the M1”), bits of show business gossip (British journalist Jeffrey Bernard nearly sued New Order over the use of his voice in a sample), and just a few ugly confessions (“Face Up” was nicknamed the “Groupie Song”).

In addition to photos of New Order on stage and the set of a video shoot, there are plenty of photos of Britpop history that seem destined for a museum in Manchester: Sumner’s melodica, the suitcase drum triggers used by Morris and Hook, discarded lyrics sheets, concerts flyers, the knitted top that Gilbert wears in the video for “The Perfect Kiss”, and a whole lot more. The book ends with an article written by Cath Carroll back in 1985 when she caught up with the band on tour. It offers a unique glimpse into a band that, in addition to being frazzled by road life, is heavily reluctant to discuss the meanings behind what they do. The only drawback is that reading it is a little tough on the eyes. The white font doesn’t produce enough contrast against the gray page.

Box sets are meant to be significant. If there ever was an excuse to air out additional recordings, this is the place for it. As it is, Low-Life Definitive Edition doesn’t feel like it’s everything it could have been, thanks to the timid format of the Extras CD. Does the hardcore New Order fan really need a vocal-less studio run-through of a song they’ve heard before that sounds almost indistinguishable from the original? Do they need that formula repeated again and again to pad out the length of a CD? If they do, it would be nice to balance those things out with more fleshed-out material, like b-sides and outtakes. The stand-alone singles from this era are allegedly bound for their own box. Low-Life is a masterstroke of synthpop glory, but keep your expectations of the word “definitive” nice and low.

RATING 7 / 10