Even a pale echo of New Order’s past glories is far better than anything many bands can offer.
It’s been ten long years since New Order fans have experienced the excitement of a new release by their venerable musical heroes from Manchester. The waiting ends with the arrival of Music Complete, the band’s first album since 2005’s Waiting for the Siren’s Call. Of course, a lot can change in ten years. Founding member and bassist Peter Hook exited the band acrimoniously in 2007 after which he and singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner engaged in a nasty and disheartening public feud. It’s impossible to contemplate this album without acknowledging the circumstances in which it was created. Hook’s presence in the band was so vital that it’s tempting to call this new incarnation New Order Minus Hook. Back into the fold is keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who last recorded with the band on 2001’s Get Ready. So what does the 2015 version of New Order sound like? Eerily similar to the 1985 version, or certainly more so than on their last two albums. Music Complete isn’t going to add much to their legacy, and doesn’t need to, but at least it won’t tarnish it. Even a somewhat pale echo of New Order’s past glories is far better than anything most bands can offer.
And past glories they have in spades. New Order formed in the early-‘80s following the tragic suicide of Ian Curtis, their former frontman in Joy Division. With a series of highly acclaimed albums and singles throughout the ‘80s, New Order established themselves as one of the most influential bands of the past 35 years. Their brand of electronic-tinged alternative rock spawned countless imitators. New Order’s discography is loaded with classic singles like “Blue Monday”, “True Faith”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”, and “Fine Time”, and essential albums like Movement, Power, Corruption & Lies, Low-Life, Brotherhood and Technique. Their standing in rock history as one of the pioneers of new wave and synth-pop is secure, whether their new album sucks or not. Thankfully, it does not.
Opening track and first single “Restless” seems rather listless on first inspection, but on repeated listens it burrows under your skin with its skittery rhythm, anxious pulses of keyboard and Sumner’s distinctly wizened vocals. Newcomer Tom Chapman is clearly trying his best to imitate Peter Hook’s bass, which has always been one of the cornerstones of the band’s sound. Sumner’s guitar part is so stereotypically New Order that it could easily have been lifted from any number of their ‘80s classics. It’s the New Order with which we’re familiar, and it’s a bit like welcoming back an old friend who’s definitely showing the passage of time.
Sumner’s best vocal performance on the album is “Singularity”, an aggressive burst of electronica produced by Tom Rowlands of Chemical Brothers. Rowlands also produced “Unlearn This Hatred”, a shadowy new wave throwback with a monster beat. Also excellent is the seven-minute “Plastic”. It was was mixed by electro-whiz Richard X, and has a bit of a Pet Shop Boys-meets-Giorgio Moroder vibe in its relentless disco groove, with lyrics dripping disdain and irony. “Plastic” is a probable single -- it calls out to be blasted at maximum volume on club speakers, and no doubt it will be.
The band brings in a couple of the decade’s most prominent new wave revivalists to add some modern flavor. Elly Jackson of La Roux sings on the club-ready pair “Tutti Frutti” and “People on the High Line”, which are sequenced as if they are two parts of one whole. The keyboard riff on “People on the High Line” is reminiscent of Sumner’s big hit “Getting Away With It” from his successful side project with Johnny Marr, Electronic, but the track plods on repetitively for too long. Much better is “Superheated”, a spritely retro synth-pop anthem beamed straight from the FM dials of 1986. Stuart Price co-produces and Brandon Flowers of The Killers guests on vocals. It was undoubtedly thrilling for Flowers to record with one of his band’s most obvious influences, and he gives an earnest performance. “Superheated” is a glowing homage to the wonderfully melodic electro-pop of big ‘80s hits like “Together in Electric Dreams”, “A Little Respect”, and “The Promise.”
Iggy Pop’s guest slot couldn’t be more different but is nearly as successful. Yeah, he seems an odd match for New Order, but his unhinged growl brings a scowling menace to “Stray Dog” that’s riveting. It’s completely out of left field and not really something that belongs on a New Order album, yet it works to an extent -- it’s just about two minutes too long. The absolute centerpiece of the album is the near eight-minute “Nothing But a Fool”, a melancholy guitar-based piece that has real emotional impact as Sumner sings “don’t ever let her drift away” repeatedly in a quavery voice that seems intentionally frail.
Music Complete is an album that’s at times satisfying and at times frustrating. Yeah, it’s still New Order without Peter Hook (I guess), but let’s not pretend nothing's missing. Still, the band fills the void passably well. There is a spirit of adventure and experimentation in the album that is commendable. It doesn’t approach their artistic peak of 30-plus years ago, but it doesn’t have to. Music Complete is the best New Order album since 1989’s Technique.