The cover of New Order’s latest album, Get Ready, sports the image of an early 90s-Calvin Klein-esque waif model with paint-splashed pants and ripped T-shirt pointing a digital video camera directly at the prospective consumer.
The group of Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris have shrouded themselves in mystery and synthesizers since their phoenix-like rise from the ashes left behind by Ian Curtis’ suicide and the dissolution of post-punk legend Joy Division in 1980.
Joy Division were the musical vinculum that bridged the Dionysian abandon of The Doors with the haunting self-loathing of Nirvana—Curtis was well-known for epileptic fits on stage. After Curtis’ death, the remaining members of Joy Division re-united as New Order.
With Sumner taking over vocal duties and experimentation with then-innovative uses of drum machines and synthesizers, New Order became the founding fathers of 1980s dance music. Their integration of electronica and synthetic rhythms (popular in the underground at the time) with instrumental pop music fostered a new movement of new wave dance that melted the pre-existing border between club and pop formats.
But being influential is usually at the cost of anonymity. Not so for New Order, who combatted fame by rarely releasing images of band members and deliberately keeping a healthy distance from the limelight. Scanning their discography, one is struck by the minimalism and blankness of the titles: Ceremony, Substance 1987, Movement, Brotherhood, Republic. Their Best Of album simply has a blue question mark on the cover. For these reasons people still ask, “Who sings that?” when Bizarre Love Triangle’s bassline bounces out of a stereo or when Sumner croons “I feel so extraordinary” on “True Faith—94.” New Order have always created music, not celebrity. It’s more than likely everyone has heard a New Order song, but few know of the band, a rarity in times when musicians promote themselves as product at every imaginable chance and teenage singers parade in their underwear to sell a few extra records.
Even in 2001, despite their return to a possibly relunctant market after an eight-year recording hiatus, New Order have the camera fixed firmly in our direction, not allowing it to be turned back on themselves.
The video for “Crystal,” the first single off Ready, is a play on viewers’ perceptions and expectations of the music video form. It shows a young, hip, rock band playing on a stage with flashing neon colors, as the group thrashs away on guitars and keyboards. The boyish lead singer dances and sings spasmodically; it could be any cutting edge, industry-created rock band. But as the video ends, roadies or studio workers (?) come and snatch the instruments away from these young rockers, unplug the amplifiers and monitors, and attempt to carry the lead singer off, causing pandemonium on the stage. And the coup is: This handsome rock group is not New Order. Because the irony of the video is undetectable to a younger market unaware of New Order’s heyday two deacdes before, the band have maintained their signature question mark and enigma. In addition, it is a brilliant marketing device by their label to sell records to the aforementioned teenage TRL crowd who have never heard of New Order, interpret their video as the heralding of a cool new rock band, and buy the new album. For the band, it makes the personal statement that although we may be aging rockers, it is the young bands who are stagnating music and from who the industry should remove the instruments. Strengthing the sad truth that musical inauthenticity is indistinguishable from what is genuine, anyone with good looks, flashy outfits and enough studio crafting can become the darlings of the rock community. So although MTV is the machine of culture and music, and to be heard and sell records one must pander to its penchant for dumbness and beautiful young popstars with lipgloss, New Order have managed to find a way to be commercially viable while retaining artistic integrity.
The album is both a return and a departure for New Order, similar to an aging author who rediscovers traditional narrative and finds a simple beauty in telling a straight-forward story. The music is less dance-oriented and techno-laden than any previous New Order creation. The first three tracks, “Crystal,” “60 Miles an Hour” (the second single) and “Turn My Way” with guest vocals by New Order admirer (and former Smashing Pumpkins frontman) Billy Corgan are forthright rock songs with snarling basslines from Hook, quixotic and affected lyrics from Sumner and even a guitar solo thrown in. Of course the synthesizers and synthetic drum beats haven’t been abandoned, but they aren’t the album’s showpiece. Instead, these elements become integrated parts of the whole sound as illustrated on “Vicious Streak” and “Close Range.”
Conceptually, the album is about mature love and aging, and what it means to be a part of an industry where a band is seen as over the hill after its members have passed 25. This theme is not lost on the aware listener—after doing the math, one realizes that the band members’ respective ages hover around those of our parents. On “Primitive Notion,” Sumner sings, “It doesn’t take a lot to confuse me / I’m not aware of the passing of time / And I’d like to say to those who accuse me / Would you do it while you look in my eye?” He challenges anyone who questions his right to make pop music at his age and addresses any concerns that the band have gone soft in their later years. And when Sumner muses about young love and its indiscretions on “Close Range” or “Someone Like You,” it comes across as sentimental yet poignant, whereas most younger vocalists sound naïve and childish when broaching the same subject. New Order may be 20 years into a career, but thanks to hiatus nearly a decade long, they return energetic and fresh, exemplified by the ripping guitar chorus of “Rock the Shack,” which does what its title professes with vocal support from Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream. Ready is an album by musicians who have reached the pinnacles of commerical success but remain unsatisfied, making a second attempt at conquering the pop landscape two decades later. And with almost every song single-worthy, don’t expect them to disappear too quickly, especially considering the frail competition that fills the airwaves. On the album’s final track, an acoustic ballad with country influences markedly uncharacteristic of New Order, Sumner sings, “I’m going live till I die, I’m going to live to get high.” At first, it may sound corny from a 40-something, but the sentiment is heartfelt. And with their new album, New Order is telling the world to get ready because they have returned with a sentimental vengeance. Although older than most current musical sensations, they are craftier this time around and can still pop and synthesize better and harder than any band on either side of the Atlantic.