Manchester’s finest serve up one of the year’s biggest albums. We take a long, hard listen…
First up, some housekeeping. No, Peter Hook isn’t on it (waits for tumbleweed to blow across the prairie before continuing). So what else do we know? The sleeve is by Peter Saville, course it is, and guests include Iggy Pop, La Roux, what’s-his-chops off The Killers, and The Chems’ Tom Rowland, Stuart Price and Richard X appear on assorted production and mixing duties. The Traveling Wilburys with synths then.
The last two albums, 2001’s ‘Get Ready’ and 2005’s ‘Waiting For The Sirens’ Call’ (three if you count 2013’s ‘… Sirens’ Call’ outtakes ‘Lost Sirens’) were more leave it than take it. The harder-nosed have it that their last decent (merely decent) outing was 1993’s ‘Republic’, so what awaits with this, their 10th studio album?
The band – stalwarts Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, along with new-ish boys and Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant cohorts Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham – say the only guideline before they set to work on ‘Music Complete’ was to make a dance record. “We wanted to go back to the roots of New Order and make an electronic record,” says Chapman. Morris puts it best, blaming Factory Floor: “Seeing young people jigging about to things with wires hanging out the back jogs your memory a bit about the way you used to do things. You think, ‘Ah, that used to be me, maybe we could do that again’.”
So could they? Have they? You know what, they sort of have. ‘Music Complete’ is very much an album of two halves plus a song that seems to have escaped from the last album by The Killers.
Opener ‘Restless’ is a treat, prime, back to their roots New Order and as distinctive an album opener as ‘Regret’ opening ‘Republic’. It’s not ‘Love Vigilantes’ on ‘Low Life’ but not much is. Big, swooping, stringy chords, obligatory twangy guitar solo and bright as buttons drumming. Next up, ‘Singularity’, which has something of the Joy Divisions about it. That brooding bass rumble, a chicka-chicka-chicka drum machine, driving Teutonic groove. And then about halfway in it does this funny thing.
Up to that point, on first listen, you’re thinking, ‘This is good’. It’s certainly more New Order than New Order have been in a decade – and just then a sequencer kicks in and the song, in a blink, flits from Joy Division to New Order and you go from ‘This sounds okay’ to “HERE WE GO!”. And you’d not be wrong.
Then it happens. ‘Plastic’. If they’d started the album with ‘Plastic’ you’d have half the electronic music world throwing in the towel, packing up and going home. Think ‘Thriller’ rubbing off on ‘I Feel Love’ in an electro back alley. It’s a total delight, all six minutes and 55 seconds of it. This is proper, PROPER New Order. All of a sudden ‘Music Complete’ is sounding like the big brother of ‘Technique’. Enough said? Marvel at how crisp and sharp and clean everything is. That hi-hat, so champagne-bright it sounds like a bag of bombs going off in a greenhouse factory. The remixes, due in November as part of a vinyl boxset, are going to be worth waiting for.
The worry is, of course, they’ve blown their load after three tracks. Nope. Track four, ‘Tutti Frutti’, starts off like Frankie Goes To Hollywood meets ‘Funky Town’ before it irons out into a classic New Order four-to-the-floor romp, complete with a ‘Fine Time’ “feel that love technique”-esque voiceover. Oh, and there’s some corking lyrics thorughout the record, won’t spoil the fun, but when Bernard nails it… Take the singalong chorus here: “You got me where it hurts / But I don’t really care / Cos I know I’m okay / Whenever you are there / You take me to a place / I always want to go / You always make me high / Whenever I feel low”. And the soaring, glorious female vocal? That’s La Roux’s Elly Jackson and that’s her on the funk-fuelled Chic-style following track ‘People On The High Line’ and earlier on ‘Plastic’.
It’s quite hard to get past the first five tracks, which as an opening quintet are pretty devastating. Once you do, the second half heads off in all directions. ‘Academic’ is cast from the same New Order songbook as opener ‘Restless’, both of which would have sat nicely on ‘Republic’, and ‘Nothing But A Fool’ is real belter and not just because it clocks in at a whopping seven minutes and 43 seconds. At that length you’d expect a banger, right? Wrong. It’s the most guitar-led track on the album, a hint of Bowie’s ‘Absolute Beginners’ about it, hardly a synth in sight and a chorus that builds and builds and builds and builds. ‘Unlearn The Hatred’ gets back to the dancefloor and some straightforward Chems-produced piano house…
Before I get carted off for some impartiality electroshock therapy, some balance. There are a trio of oddities. ‘Stray Dog’ is an instrumental, with Iggy Pop’s growly spoken word on top. It reminds me a little of Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris Texas’ OST and while not a duffer, it sits a bit odd here. ‘The Game’ is a strange little thing. A bit of a nothing track, going nowhere. And I don’t quite know what to make of the Stuart Price-produced ‘Superheated’, the album’s closer. It comes with The Killers’ Brandon Flowers on chorus duties and is more a Killers songs than a New Order one. Which is odd in itself and perhaps why it’s buried at the end. Sounds all wrong. As prodigious as Price is, he’s surplus to requirements here. Ship in an electronic music producer to produce New Order? Don’t be daft. That said, the Tom Rowlands and the Richard X credited cuts don’t sore thumb half as much as this. Take from that what you will.
What strikes you about the album as a whole – and you don’t notice it at first – is there’s very little of that trademark Peter Hook bass twang, just a few bars here and there. And here’s the thing: for all the huffing and puffing, New Order without Hooky is still New Order. And all the better for it. The last two or three albums bore the scars of the ill-feeling, but this return, with the dust seemingly settled, finds New Order back to their best, doing what New Order do best. What’s more, even Hooky will listen to ‘Music Complete’ and have a wry smile. You’d imagine he’d kick himself quite hard when no one was looking. Traveling Wilburys? What bloody idiot said that?