New Order - Music Complete

by Oliver Rose

As forlorn spokesmen of Generation X, they were Joy Division, a post-punk phenomenon bookended by aural dispiritedness and untimely passing. As progenitors of indie-dance, they were the unstoppable New Order, purveyors of the premium guitar/synth blend. But by 1993, momentum was lost; Regret was the aptly titled lead-single from perhaps the most disappointing album of the decade. Exacerbating this distressing, newfound mediocrity, the band recorded three more LPs, each more disheartening, before grinding to a halt in 2005 with Waiting for the Sirens’ Call. Finally, in 2007, bassist Peter Hook, whose trademark melodies had defined the band’s sound, violently decamped. It looked like curtains.

And so, when New Order signed with Mute earlier this year, there was scepticism. Here was a label with a reputation for some of the best synth-pop in the business, from Depeche Mode to Erasure. Quickly, exciting details began to emerge: Peter Saville, much-loved in-house designer with the band’s old label Factory, produced minimalist artwork recalling the vivid geometries of constructivism and postmodern architecture; the band released twinkly electronic teasers through YouTube; and finally, lead-single and album-opener Restless dropped from the heavens, a thumping new wave anthem underpinned by a reassuring bass melody from stand-in, Tom Chapman. Since, New Order have appeased new and old fans alike with an ecstatic, strobe-riddled music video and plans for a physical release of Restless in an extended 12” vinyl version as per the earlier catalogue.

So does the LP excite on arrival? The answer isn’t a resounding “yes”, but this is at least in part, very refreshing stuff. Second track Singularity is a nosebleed-inducing hoedown of tight, squelching sequencer and bright, stadium-sized synths. The pulsating Plastic is a serrated slice of sharply produced electronica, with a deliciously fat breakdown around the 4.30 mark. Disco-driven third track Tutti Frutti is most obviously reminiscent of the Ibiza-indebted Technique (1989), with an acidic low-end that recalls the opening stabs of Fine Time. Later on, The Game provides a glitchy mixture of arcade-machine bleeps and swathes of heavily affected guitars, with a characteristic Sumner solo at the apex. Meanwhile, closer Superheated is a reflective tornado of sad lyrics, racing synths and pounding drums; this track is also graced with a sentimental guest-spot from super-fan Brandon Flowers, whose closing refrain of “now that it’s over” has you consider how the album overall has felt.

The answer, sadly, is not a feeling akin to the closing bars of Low-Life’s Face Up. For example, there is little, if any, compulsion to immediately relive the extraordinarily long Music Complete; at 64 minutes, and only 11 tracks, this record is, quite frankly, a slog. In addition to the better songs’ own inconsistencies (due mostly to their massive run-times), the middle-section of the LP is also particularly weak. It begins with the inappropriately exotic People On The High Line, plagued by incongruous slap-bass and is followed up by the Simple Minds-esque Stray Dog, essentially an over-embellished instrumental featuring a similarly incompatible spoken-word passage from Iggy Pop. Next is the instantly forgettable Academic, a B-Side rework of Restless at best. Sub-par vibes continue through into the pretentiously introduced and atrociously long Nothing But A Fool. Unlearn This Hatred ends the boring half-hour stint with a Chemical Brothers rip-off that even carries The Chemical Brothers production credit. It’s quite amazing to see these poorer songs clumped together like this; I suspect a number of listeners will miss out on the comparatively excellent last two tracks as a result, which is a real shame.

Distinctive and accomplished even in their weakest hours, New Order have never recorded songs that can be seen as objectively poor; instead, theirs is a discography whose matchless outset has made any current project weak by comparison – their earlier, seminal masterpieces such as the 1981-Factus 8-1982 EP, are near-impossible to better. This LP should then be revered as their best attempt yet at a return to form, and certainly, in isolation, it’s an undeniably sharp-sounding and gorgeously packaged product. Yet, trying so hard to recoup the past is its Achilles’ heel – it only takes one look back at the faultless, analogue-throb of Temptation to know what they’re truly capable of, and to realise Music Complete doesn’t even come close.