The new New Order album, Music Complete, is a true return to form and certainly going to be one of the best releases of the year. While not being overtly political in the traditional sense, it is a record that truly captures the joy, sadness, anxiety, wonder, and confusion of modern times. New Order’s blend of rock instruments with dance music synthesizers finds a perfect balance here. Although I am extremely leery of when critics say that so-and-so is the best since whatever, this truly is their best album since Technique.
Even the cover art is perfect. While being abstract, I can’t help but feel that the cover looks like a piece of a stain glass window. As parts of the old world fall away, what is it that we now worship?
The gods of consumerism is met head on in the first song and single, Restless. “What can you buy / That lifts a heavy heart up to the sky?” Lead singer Bernard Sumner has always been a strange lyricist. His lyrics often border on cliche when read, but never become that when communicated through song. At times I have called what he does Communist Bloc aesthetic, in the sense that there is a certain purposeful blankness to them. Instead of creating extremely vivid imagery through abstraction, or by telling cinematic stories, the way that most of the best songwriters do, his lyrics leave a space for the listener’s own imagination to fill out the information he has left out. It’s like he is allowing the listener’s imagination to flower up through the concrete. It’s a neat trick when it works, one I have never really seen anyone else pull off in quite the same way. While retaining an element of that on this album, Sumner is clearly reflecting on the modern world here in a more explicit way than on past albums. But as typical of Sumner, he is able to say a lot, while at the same time not saying any more than he has to.
Sumner is also one of music’s most consistent melody writers, which no doubt has always helped his lyrics. This album is full of glorious pop moments. As typical of New Order, the album is one half ecstatic joy and one half steely coldness. The possibility and anxiety of the moment are both represented here.
Anyone that is a New Order fan will wonder how they fair without longtime bassist Peter Hook. Hook was an essential element of the New Order sound, with his melodic chorused bass playing often creating many of the most exciting musical moments, by playing hooks or melodic leads. Strangely enough, as a bass player and huge fan of his, he is not missed. On one hand this is because replacement Tom Chapman apes him when needed. But Chapman also branches out from what Hook does, adding new and interesting elements, that all seem to work here as far as I’m concerned, to the band’s sound.
This album definitely leans towards the dance side of New Order’s catalog. When so many synths are used, especially at this moment in time, there is the risk that they would be either chasing trends or retreading old ground. I feel like again they have found the perfect balance. The album sounds current enough that it never comes across as a retread, but there are definitely retro moments as well. I feel this is a perfect blend for our sequel obsessed, nostalgia oriented culture. Even when they use a sound that sounds retro, in the context of this album, it seems more of a comment of the now than simply a way of capitalizing on their past.
New Order have created a modern pop music masterpiece. It has enough hooks to be thoroughly enjoyable, but enough ideas and left turns to be artistically captivating. The excitement and the dread of these modern times is captured in sound. Although there might be more modern sounding records, or ones with a larger poetic scope, I can’t help but feel like if someone asked me what our constantly changing culture felt like right now, that this is one record I would point them towards.