New Order: Music Complete

One could be forgiven for coming to New Order's tenth studio album Music Complete with modest expectations. After all, most bands have a shelf-life that sees them gradually attain an artistic peak that inevitably ends, leading the band in question to either pack it in or attempt, usually unsuccessfully, to reach that summit one more time. In New Order's case, the peak would seem to have occurred years ago, with any number of releases signifying that moment. So news that the band was readying its first full studio release since 2005's Waiting For The Siren's Call was understandably greeted with anticipation but not a little caution, too. As it turns out, while there's nothing on the meticulously produced Music Complete equal to “The Perfect Kiss,” “Blue Monday,” or “True Faith,” it's still a solid and largely satisfying effort.

Certainly no one could call the album lethargic or listless; instead, the band's playing is energized and the material polished. Bassist Peter Hook is, of course, absent, but original members Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Gillian Gilbert are present and so too are bassist Tom Chapman and guitarist Phil Cunningham. A small number of guests also shows up: Iggy Pop, La Roux's Elly Jackson, and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers contribute vocals, and Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands is credited as producer on two tracks. The major question as far as the band's signature sound is concerned involves the switch in bassists, given how central Hook's lead bass lines were to the band's identity. On that count, long-time fans can relax: Chapman, while admittedly not as aggressive or dominant in his playing as Hook, does a pretty good job of replicating his predecessor's attack without sounding like a clone. Another thing that recommends the release is that the band has retreated from the six-string emphasis of 2001's Get Ready and reinstated a more satisfying balance between dance-based electronic music and guitar-driven post-punk.

As an opener, “Restless,” a wistful riff on material emptiness and spiritual ennui, isn't quite at the level of Republic's “Regret,” but it's still a promising start. Sumner's in fine voice, and the soaring music, its exuberance amplified by strings, reaches suitably euphoric heights in the choruses. In addition, the bass pulsates with conviction, the drums pound effervescently, and the guitars work up a thick wall of sound. The album, in fact, doesn't falter until the sixth song, with the opening five all matching the high level of the opener, despite shifts in style: “Singularity” serves up a particularly aggressive electro-punk treatment, its breathless 4/4 groove powered by Morris's drumming; “Plastic,” with Sumner's vocal backed by Dawn Zee, Denise Johnson, and Elly Jackson, moves the band even further into synth-heavy electro-dance territory with seven minutes of rave-styled euphoria (replete with an undeniably Hook-like lead bass part); with Italian utterances by Giacomo Cavagna sprinkled throughout, “Tutti Frutti” rebrands the group as a Eurodisco-funk outfit tailor-made for the dance club than the festival stage; and “People On the High Line” marries chicken-scratch disco-funk and rollicking house to largely credible effect.

Halfway through the album, Iggy Pop contributes a drawling spoken word performance to “Stray Dog” that comes across like a less ear-catching riff on the kind of thing William Burroughs did on Material's Seven Souls in 1989, but, melodically lean, the track itself isn't at the same level as the others on the album. With eleven songs featured on an arguably overlong album, “Stray Dog” could've been omitted at no great loss. It's not Music Complete's only misstep either: though no song is an outright failure on the album's second half, a few feel like water-treading riffs on earlier New Order songs, and, as good as it is, “Nothing But A Fool” is about two minutes longer than it needs to be (even if it's elevated by classic New Order instrumental breaks and vocal sweetener by Zee and Johnson). That said, there's no denying the aggressive charge of “Unlearn This Hatred” or (with Spector-ish bells and harps included) the joyous uplift and soaring choruses of “Superheated.”

The album won't have anyone favouring it over Power Corruption & Lies, Low-Life, Technique, or Republic, but it's no embarrassment either. One can't help but wonder, though, if it might not be the band's swan song: after all, the album title can be interpreted to mean a project reaching its end, and the closing song ends with the words “Now that it's over.” If Music Complete does turn out to be the final New Order opus, the band can at least feel good knowing it didn't go out with a whimper.

November 2015