New Order is a singles band. That’s how the conventional wisdom goes, anyway, and the record bears it out. All of the singles collected on the band’s 1987 compilation, Substance, are basically perfect. That’s also true of the b-sides (save for maybe the instrumental remixes, which are fine), so we can go ahead and call this one true, even if notions of singles bands vs. album artists is sort of an outdated, format-first way of looking at things. But New Order’s singles do give some insight into just how interesting a journey its been for the Manchester post-punk outfit. Their debut single, 1981′s “Ceremony,” was initially intended to be released by Joy Division—Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris’ previous band. It’s a beautiful, if chilling piece of stark post-punk, simultaneously hopeful and dark in equal measure. Just a decade later, the band responsible for that perfectly gloomful slice of wax would release a World Cup anthem, “World In Motion,” which is everything that “Ceremony” isn’t: booming, over-the-top and catering to stadium-filling masses. And yet, they’re both written and performed by the same band.
Understanding New Order’s trajectory from their Joy Division roots up to their soccer anthem (a distinction they share with Pitbull), requires a bit deeper look at their catalog. For while New Order’s singles are indeed phenomenal, they’re every bit an album band as they are a singles one. The interesting thing about New Order is that they only released eight albums in 25 years, though with the upcoming release of Music Complete this fall, it’ll mark nine in 35. So every time they did release an album, it meant a significant transition of some sort, be it from the dark electronic pulse of Movement on up to the dancefloor euphoria of Power, Corruption and Lies, or the abrasive jangle of Brotherhood on up to the Ibiza-inspired club bangers of Technique.
Let’s get started on that journey and re-examine how rapidly the New Order discography evolved, while also seeing how they hold up over decades of repeat spins. So here you go: The New Order albums rated, evaluated, scrutinized and, indeed, celebrated.
Part One: I believe in a land of love
Released only a year after the death of frontman Ian Curtis, the three remaining members of Joy Division were faced with the decision of whether to continue as a band and opted to soldier on, changing their name to New Order to signify a new chapter in their career. But New Order’s debut album Movement stands apart from the rest of their discography for one important reason: It’s basically a Joy Division album without Ian Curtis. For this reason, it’s often seen as an awkward transitional record for the band, as they had still yet to find a unique identity outside of the band they once were. True, the band’s members were still figuring things out: Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook were trading off vocal duties, in the absence of a dedicated frontperson, and on the songs where Hook takes lead, like “Dreams Never End,” his vocal affectations sound maybe a little too much like Ian Curtis. Likewise, Martin Hannett’s murky production work and Stephen Morris’ tom-heavy drums ultimately make some of the songs sound like Closer B-sides.
And yet, in spite of the many real and valid criticisms of the album, it’s actually really good. Certainly, it’s absent much of the vibrancy and joy of other New Order releases, but there are kernels of it sprinkled throughout, from the proto-”In-Between Days” post-punk jangle of “Dreams Never End” to the album’s one definite dancefloor thumper, “Chosen Time.” These are the two songs with major pop potential on the album, albeit still clouded in some of the icy bleakness that defines the album (which Peter Saville’s simple, Eastern Bloc propaganda-style cover art matches nicely). But while those are the obvious standouts, Movement reveals minor revelations throughout, such as the wiry post-punk-funk that pulses through “Senses” (which is apparently one of two tracks that began to take shape while they were still Joy Division) and the scratchy industrial pulse of “Denial,” which sounds a bit like the darker cousin to “Everything’s Gone Green,” which was released just two months earlier.
As its own self-contained piece of music, Movement is actually much stronger than history would suggest, and in the context of the singles the band released within the immediate two-year period after changing their name to New Order, actually makes perfect sense, even if it’s not so immediate. When Rhino reissued the band’s catalog with bonus material in 2008, Movement‘s bonus disc—featuring “Ceremony,” “Temptation,” “Everything’s Gone Green” and “Cries and Whispers,” to name a few early gems—almost makes for an excellent companion album. The tendency for bands like New Order to release singles and albums as two entirely separate entities prevented such a thing from ever happening, but as interesting and ultimately rewarding as Movement is, were some of its more drab and mournful songs swapped out for tracks such as “Ceremony” or “In a Lonely Place,” it actually could have ended up being their best album.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Power, Corruption & Lies
“Blue Monday,” New Order’s breakout 1983 single, went down in history as the best-selling 12-inch single of all time. And it’s easy to see why; it’s quite simply one of the best dance tracks ever written, bridging Kraftwerk’s robotic conceptual pop with post-punk’s edgy darkness. It’s eight minutes of new wave art that feels timeless in spite of its fairly primitive synth-pop sound. (And Peter Saville’s colorful floppy-disk sleeve design is also fantastic, for what it’s worth.) But it was released around the same time as the band’s second album, Power, Corruption and Lies, which proved a bit confusing for consumers, as the single was nowhere to be found on the album. Copies would eventually be slapped with a sticker that said “Blue Monday” was not on the album, and within a few years reissued CD copies would feature the single as a bonus track.
I have both versions of Power—one with “Blue Monday” and one without—and as much as I love the single, the album is perfect without it. In this way, Power is considerably different than Movement. That album would have been improved by the addition of “Ceremony” or “In a Lonely Place”; Power, Corruption and Lies is strong enough on its own, however, simply because it’s the point at which New Order truly came to become their own band. Plenty of moments throughout the album carry touches of darkness, such as the atmospheric dub of “We All Stand,” the robot-bounce of “Ecstasy,” or the percussive exercise of “Ultraviolence,” which is the only song here that sounds like it could have been on Movement.
Those songs are phenomenal, but more groundbreaking are the other five. Opening song “Age of Consent” is both the first great vocal performance by Bernard Sumner, and an upbeat and joyous trip outside of the pall cast on their debut. “5-8-6″ is the song from which “Blue Monday” was born, its cut-and-paste electronic sequencing one of the band’s first major synth experiments. And “Your Silent Face” is where the group takes its Kraftwerk influence and turns it into something even more grand and beautiful, like a symphonic version of “Europe Endless.” So, sure, “Blue Monday” is a fine bonus for those who pick up any reissued copies of the album, but Power, Corruption and Lies stands on its own. It’s the band’s best album.
Rating: 10 out of 10
Low-Life is an odd record. You can say that about a lot of New Order records, I suppose—such as the (appealing) messiness of Brotherhood, the opposing styles of Technique, or the we’re-still-kind-of-Joy-Division sound of Movement. By comparison, Low-Life isn’t necessarily so peculiar; in fact, it’s maybe the most New Order that New Order has ever been. But it begins with “Love Vigilantes,” a song that, first of all, has a ridiculous title that only could have been dreamed up in the 1980s. It also prominently features melodica, which isn’t such a bad thing but certainly feels like an odd way to kick off the album. But what really sets things askew is the lyrical narrative, which ends in a way that M. Night Shyamalan would later crib for his own movie The Sixth Sense. Yep, the narrator’s been dead the whole time!
But “Love Vigilantes” is kind of the only song of its kind here, and almost would have made more sense to close the album than to open it. Though I’ll readily admit that Stephen Morris’ crack of snare does offer a giddy exclamation to usher in the next 40 or so minutes. The remainder of the album, though, comprises some of the band’s best music, and though the production sometimes doesn’t live up to the strength of the songs, they stand well enough on their own. “Perfect Kiss” is, alongside “Blue Monday” and “Ceremony” (and “True Faith,” while I’m at it), one of the group’s best singles, and “Sub-Culture” isn’t too shabby either, with its arpeggiated hook and general sense of gothic grandeur. (Saville didn’t like it much, though, and opted not to design the 12-inch single’s cover, though he did the album, which is the first to show the band’s faces.) That gothic darkness shows up again on the dramatic instrumental “Elegia,” the low-key dance pulse of “This Time of Night” and the epic post-punk standout “Sunrise.” It does not, however, on slap-bass dance number “Face Up,” which is where the dated production values take some of the shine off an otherwise stellar recording. But while the bookends make the entrance and exit points to Low-Life a bit idiosyncratic, the sequence between them is one of the most cohesive of the band’s career.
Rating: 9.3 out of 10
After the single-free sequencing of Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies—which was a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, even if the former could have been that much better with a string of perfect singles—New Order began to pack their albums with meatier singles fodder with 1985′s Low-Life. That must have been at least some consolation for consumers frustrated with finding no “Blue Monday” to be found on Power, but that single’s ubiquity would only be rivaled by 1986′s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and hey! Look, there it is, right at the beginning of Side B on Brotherhood. And it has every reason for being one of the band’s biggest hits. Where “Blue Monday” was all about the beat and the bassline, “Bizarre Love Triangle” is all about its triumphant, sing-along chorus: “Every time I see you falling/I get down on my knees and pray.” In fact, it’s the only song from the album that was released as a single, and it’s hard not to see why—it’s the only song of its kind here, going for the big pop statement while the other songs adhere to a particular aesthetic.
The particular aesthetic of Brotherhood, not counting “Bizarre Love Triangle” (or visually, Peter Saville’s close-up of a sheet of titanium), is a guitar-driven post-punk sound that’s more visceral and driving than some of their Kraftwerk-inspired songs of the past. I dare say it’s the ’80s-era New Order album that rocks the hardest, and for that it stands out as unique. And they do it well—opening track “Paradise” has a dark undercurrent that resonates in the backing refrain of “I need you/ I neeeeed you,” while “Broken Promise” goes for broke on abrasive, distorted guitar crunch.
So, as it turns out, there’s one other song that’s defined by synthesizers and krautrock pulses rather than Sumner’s prominent guitar clang, and that’s “All Day Long.” And hell, while it might not be the hit that “Bizarre Love Triangle” was, it’s at least as good a song. It’s gorgeous—it’s a revelation. Honestly one of the best they’ve ever written, and what’s interesting is how it combines the two aesthetics of the album’s highlights into one anthem that’s quintessentially New Order. They try something similar with “Angel Dust” and it’s almost as good, though it’s missing the sheer beauty and vibrancy of the track that precedes it. Still, that New Order kind of rocks the fuck out on Brotherhood is admirable in itself, even if the two songs that stand tallest are the ones that don’t.
Rating: 9.1 out of 10