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True Blue 

New Order's recent work has fallen off, but its legacy speaks for itself

Wednesday, Apr 27 2005
In the summer of 1986, as they had for many years before that, my parents sent me off to camp in the hills above Santa Cruz. Care packages filled with sugar were strictly verboten, but one sunny day mail call yielded something far sweeter: a padded envelope containing New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies. Its lush, funereal cover seemed the perfect counterpoint to the organized fun that went against my every adolescent instinct. Its clear plastic cassette case smelled like a heady mixture of myrrh and gasoline there beneath the redwoods, and I huffed it deeply. (I did the same thing with Prince's Around the World in a Day as I sat through my eighth-grade graduation rehearsal, but that's another story.) And its aura of pervasive melancholy dangled like a lifeline to an adult world I could hardly understand, but wanted to, badly, as only a sullen teenager can.

By autumn I had my learner's permit, and I would helm the family Corolla on the seven-minute drive to high school while my dad sat patiently in the passenger seat. New Order hadn't lost its grasp on me, and pretty much every single day I would pop in a mix tape I'd recorded, which I'd fast-forward to the eight-minute extended remix of "The Perfect Kiss," off the group's 1985 album Low-Life. (My father, bless his soul, was deaf -- he couldn't have cared less if it had been Twisted Sister in permanent rotation.) Pulling up in front of Woodrow Wilson High's landscaped grounds before the song had finished seemed perverse, but those gloomy guitars, cellophane strings, and chattering drum machines -- not to mention lyrics that ended in "the kiss of death," which might as well have been commissioned by a high school sophomore dreading his daily dose of public humiliation -- proved perfect for the drive through rolling suburbs.

My father passed away this year (for the soundtrack to that episode, see Iron & Wine's "Sodom, South Georgia"), and I went home to clean out the house where I'd grown up. I found that same cassette, a black Maxwell number with silver decals, lying forgotten in a desk drawer. On a hunch, I slipped it into a tape deck, and there it was: "The Perfect Kiss," stopped in mid-conga roll, its last minute of '80s disco madness frozen on pause for damn near 20 years.

This is all a very long way of explaining that New Order was never just another band for me; it was the band, part of the holy trinity that included the Cure and Depeche Mode (and surrounded by the acolytes Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and all the rest of the great new wave pantheon). New Order marked my passage out of childhood, as mysterious as an older sibling who lived far away but returned to visit bearing dazzling tales of another world: 1986's Brotherhood, with its steely industrial cover, hinted at European shipyards, and 1989's Technique taught my college roommates and I about acid house long before we -- well, I, anyway -- even knew what Ecstasy was.

Of course, any number of bands could fill this place in their fans' hearts, but New Order forged an unusual number of exceptionally strong bonds, thanks in part to the act's longevity, and in part to its malleability. Regrouping after the 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis, the singer of the pre-New Order outfit Joy Division, members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Gillian Gilbert, and Stephen Morris were haunted by loss from the get-go, and every album felt like some kind of reinvention, the fabled seven stages of grief played out across decades. New Order grew up alongside us, reflecting our own changing tastes as we discovered new sounds. No wonder the quartet was tapped for an edition of the mix-CD series Back to Mine -- based upon the music New Order turned us on to, that tightknit set had to have the coolest record collection around.

Age, side projects, and family life -- the band's members have nine children between them -- have slowed down the group. After 1993's uneven Republic, eight years passed before the guitar-heavy hodgepodge Get Ready, and now, another four years on, we're given Waiting for the Sirens' Call. It's inconsistent, yeah; some of Sumner's lyrics are goofy, to say the least, and several of its riffs feel like barely veiled variations on, well, every other song in the band's catalog. Even these tracks sure can sink a melody into your subconscious, though: Not for nothing is the group's bass player named Hook.

Many fans have suggested that New Order, having long outgrown its post-punk and Madchester days, is merely milking it, and the band's own members don't necessarily inspire confidence that that's not the case. "It's really strange," says drummer Morris, "when you sit down and say, 'Right, we're going to write an album,' and you haven't got the faintest idea how to do that anymore -- you've forgotten how to write songs. It's always like that. We just sort of scratch our heads and sit around jamming; it's a relief when you actually write your first track -- you're so relieved that you can still do it, it spurs you on." If you're as much of a fan of the band as I am, you might want to stop reading now: Morris confesses that the group once purchased a book on how to write pop songs (key kernel of advice: Start with the title).

"It takes a long time to do a New Order record," continues Morris. "We started working on Waiting for the Sirens' Call at the tail end of 2002, and all of 2003 writing it, and all of 2004 recording it. And here we are now, going out to try to remember how to do gigs again."

"As you reach a certain age," he continues with a laugh, "touring is not a thing you look forward to -- it's more of a short series of concerts." (Morris' wife, New Order keyboardist Gilbert, recently departed the band, of which Morris says -- and it's unclear whether or not he's kidding -- "We decided to toss a coin, and Gillian won. I get to stay with the group, and she gets to stay home with the kids. It's another equally thankless task, but it's more rewarding.")

Morris' candor -- not to mention his northern English accent -- is endearing, but it's hard not to be disappointed that a group that once was the torchbearer for English pop music as it morphed from post-punk to techno has gotten so soft. I'll be honest: Waiting for the Sirens' Call, despite generous hooks and pleasant production -- and one absolutely killer single, "Krafty," that lassos itself around the melancholic masterpiece Brotherhood as though trying to drag itself back to a heyday two decades past -- is unlikely to blow any summer campers' minds. Kids with learner's permits rocking 50 Cent probably outnumber those crooning "Who's Joe?," the lead cut on Waiting, about a million to one. While New Order is studying Top 40 Hits for Dummies, you'd be better off boning up on the band's back catalog: the overgrown tangle of the ambient/electro/ shoegazer epic "Everything's Gone Green," or the industrial acid splendor of 1989's "MTO," the B-side to "Run," that sounds like an extended mash note to gay, black, Chicago house.

New Order put its perfect kiss on enough productions to fill one of those gum-stick-size iPods -- not for nothing does "Blue Monday" remain the best-selling 12-inch of all time -- and the group passed the torch to any number of protégés, from 808 State, whose vintage acid-house reworks of "Blue Monday" and "Confusion" emerged last year on the U.K. label Rephlex, to Soulwax, which mashed up "Blue Monday" with Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head," resulting in pure bubblegum sublimity. Indietronica types like the Postal Service wouldn't exist without New Order; it's tempting to say the same for half of the artists on German cult-techno label Kompakt. For this legacy, as far as I'm concerned, New Order has license to milk it as long as its members wish -- and I'm even favorably disposed to entertain the notion of a New New Order, once the members' kids come of age. (As Morris observes, "It can't be long now.")

New Order wrote many songs as good as "The Perfect Kiss," and even a few that were better, but it remains my favorite -- in part, perhaps, because it kept changing as I grew up, soaking up new meanings. When I was 15, its lyrics -- especially the verse that goes, "I have always thought about/ Staying in and going out/ Tonight I should have stayed at home/ Playing with my pleasure zone" -- freaked me out, frankly; that was a little more adult than I cared to be at the time. I can't say that I even understood the clubbiness of the record -- "disco" was a bad word, I'd never heard of dub, and house music hadn't been invented yet -- but those panning, out-of-tune synthesizers tousled my hair like a mother's hand. And even at 15 I could thrill to the way Sumner could wring a line like "We believe in the land of love" from a narrative as chilled and disappointing as a wet blanket.

The last minute of the song is its best, so it's ironic that I never got to hear it on my daily trip to school. Reprising the chorus, the coda builds to a climax of guitars that seem to be trying to tear themselves forcibly away from strings that surround them like cold water; then the drums drop out, the slap bass goes silent, and everything descends, note by slowing note, into hiss and darkness. New Order may be waiting for the sirens' call -- and at this point in the band's career, it remains to be seen whether it will ever hear it again -- but I have it caught on tape, right there in that long, perfect minute. The cassette now sits in my desk drawer, spooled, waiting.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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