Oh, how I cannot stand the thought of being without music from 1985. Almost without exception, every piece of music from that time seems spun in pure gold. Without getting too far into actually referencing music from that year, mainly because I’ve done it so much already, it was the year that really opened my eyes to the potential of music. It was the first time I had heard one particular song which I consider a third of the triumvirate of ‘perfect’ 80’s indie songs, “The Perfect Kiss” by New Order. (The other two, in case you were wondering, are “How Soon is Now?” and “Bring on the Dancing Horses”.) Bernard Sumner’s voice may not have been that polished (yet), Hooky’s bass was as distinctive as ever, and what the hell was up with those frog noises (?), but the song was, to me, perfection.
It turned out that the track was off of the band’s third album, and first real American release, Low-Life. I loved everything about it. From its black, gray, and white packaging with each member getting their own picture (the first time photos of the band had appeared in their releases), Sumner all doe-eyed and introspective, to the music itself, a bold mixture of dance, post-punk, and sometimes even folk storylines. “Love Vigilantes” even had a folk harmonica intro, but the lyrics were straight out of The Twilight Zone, about a soldier who desperately wants to return home to his family only to find that he is actually dead and didn’t know it. Yes, “The Perfect Kiss” was the perfect song, but I quickly became enamored with other tracks on the album including the stunningly baroque “Elegia.” “This Time of Night” and “Sunrise” were less dancy than they were angular and jagged, far more like their original and now legendary incarnation as Joy Division, who I would discover much later (frankly, my thirteen year old ears weren’t quite ready for them yet).
“Elegia” is a song that still takes me to a dark and dramatic place. It’s as if New Order had written a teen angst, John Hughes-esque, darkly inward film score theme song just for me. I never really fit into any kind of stereotype in junior high, yet I was constantly trying to find my place. This song let me be purely myself when listening to it. It made me feel like it was okay to have quiet moments of solitude. It allowed me to make a friend of loneliness. I found out later that there is rumored to be a 20-minute version floating around out there and the album version is merely the highlights. I can’t imagine what the 20-minute version would have done to my young psyche. Follower “Sooner Than You Think” featured the jangly almost banjo-like guitars playing with the famous bass of Peter Hook that eventually made the band more famous than their previous dance hit “Blue Monday.” “Sub-culture” was the second single from the album and thus the only song other than “The Perfect Kiss” to appear on Substance. Factory graphic designer Peter Saville, who did all of NO’s stuff, thought it was so bad he refused to design for it, thus making it one of the only plain covered singles for the band. Frankly, I don’t know what he was thinking, the song is brilliant with one of their best choruses,
What do I get out of this?
I always try, I always miss
One of these days you’ll go back to your home
You won’t even notice that you are alone
One of these days when you sit by yourself
You’ll realize you can’t shaft without someone else
In the end you will submit
It’s got to hurt you a little bit.
Finally, “Face Up” highlights Gillian Gilbert’s keyboards more than most songs and features the memorable lines, “Oh, how I cannot stand the thought of you” which I purloined and mutilated for my opening. To this day it’s hard to describe to people what it is I like about New Order. They weren’t really at all much like the Smiths, or Echo, or the Cure. Sumner’s voice is quite often off-key and a little rough. So what is it that I like? Though the voice may not be polished, it is earnest and that counts for a lot. A lot of people may not like Morrissey, but his earnestness, like Sumner’s, attracts a lot of fans. And, simply put, the band writes great songs that pull from dance music, pop, punk and folk. Low-Life is a testament to the ability of the remaining members of Joy Divison to pick themselves up off the floor and begin in a different direction, while having recognized their starting point. It’s probably fair to say that if I hadn’t heard “The Perfect Kiss,” and thus Low-Life, I would not be listening to all of the music I listen to today, and for that, I owe the album a debt of gratitude.