New Order make a satisfying, yet shaky, return on “Music Complete”

By Jackson Maxwell

Official New Order Facebook Page
(Official New Order Facebook Page)

When I first heard that the current edition of New Order – minus founding bassist Peter Hook – had announced its first album of new recordings in a decade, with a guest list that included The Killers’ Brandon Flowers and Iggy Pop, I winced.

What did Bernard Sumner, New Order’s guitarist and singer, and his remaining bandmates have left to prove? The band’s timeless ‘80s hits – like “Blue Monday,” “Temptation” and “Bizarre Love Triangle,” to name a few – changed the very fabric of independent music. Plus, the band’s previous post-reunion albums – 2001′s “Get Ready,” 2005′s “Waiting For The Sirens Call” and even 2013′s outtakes collection, “Lost Sirens” – were quite good.

While those three albums were, at times, a bit lyrically suspect, they were fluid and natural in their embrace of a sort of maximalist, synth-addled guitar rock. More than anything, the trio – minus keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who has returned to the fold for “Music Complete” – evolved seamlessly back into the pop music zeitgeist without batting an eye.

So, minus its erstwhile bassist, could New Order spin its magic twice in two decades? “Music Complete,” released Sep. 25, offers neither a definitive yes or no. With Gilbert back on board, the band spends much of this album re-visiting the club-ready electronics that cemented its reputation so emphatically.

Rather than the engaged frontman of a muscly, suddenly socially conscious rock band as he was in the 2000’s, Bernard Sumner has returned to his place as a disengaged, unreliable narrator. Rarely offering more than a few, pointed lines over the album’s driving, bass-heavy rhythms, Sumner largely cedes the spotlight to the always-remarkable beats of Stephen Morris, Gilbert and the band’s new bassist, Tom Chapman.

The songwriting is undoubtedly strong in places, with Sumner wisely offering many of the album’s biggest hooks to guest vocalists with greater ranges than his own. Brandon Flowers was essentially born to belt out the gorgeous, universe-sized chorus to closer “Superheated,” and the backing vocals of Dawn Zee and Denise Johnson make the eight-minute “Nothing But A Fool” worth the whole trip, molding their more dramatic exhortations perfectly with Sumner’s more muted delivery.

To her credit, Jackson also gives “People On The High Line” – which could have easily been plucked right out of the playlist at an early ‘90s English club – a boost; giving the dance-floor piano runs and funky bass genuine zest.

Elsewhere, the band sounds surprisingly formidable when emulating its own early work. “Plastic” is a relentless dance number, with the hardest hitting electronics the band have laid to tape since the ‘80s. Sumner’s lyrics, as ever, are vague and spotty, but as always with New Order,  it matters little.

“Plastic” is a song built much more for becoming lost in and hypnotized by than it is for over-analyzing. The band then throws strength upon strength with the following song, “Tutti Frutti.” Intermittently featuring an Italian spoken-word voiceover, it’s the sort of flashy, bass-powered, cornball disco the band has always been so ridiculously good at.

So yes, New Order is still unquestionably a creatively vital unit. The issue with “Music Complete” though, is how over-eager the band is to prove that to its audience. The album is a whopping 64 minutes, 7 minutes longer than any other album in its discography, and more than 20 minutes longer than any of the albums from the band’s ‘80s heyday.

The album’s length makes material like the otherwise fascinating spoken-word collaboration with Iggy Pop, “Stray Dog,” feel completely unnecessary. Even some of the album’s strongest tracks, like “Nothing But A Fool,” feel far longer than they need to be. And while Chapman does a fairly admirable job in filling the giant shoes of Hook, Hook’s melodic flexibility and aggressive lines are missed during those long stretches where Chapman merely holds down the fort.

“Music Complete,” with its Peter Saville cover art and total ‘80s aesthetic, does sometimes feel like a true return to form for a band that has held so much sway in pop music’s recent history. But by the time the last bits of Flowers’ stadium-sized vocals on “Superheated” finally fade out, ones gets the feeling that New Order could have made the same point, just as effectively, with an album that was maybe half as long.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Elly Jackson song on the song “Nothing But A Fool,” and that the spoken-word segment in the track “Tutti Frutti” was not Italian. Both mistakes have since been changed.