Review Summary: A schizophrenic album, the first side of guitars followed by the second side of synthesizers, reflecting the creative tensions within the band.
I bought this album for a bargain £3 in a second hand record shop in Notting Hill Gate. Being particularly into rap, I thought that this would be all about the brothers in the hood. And the band's name seemed vaguely familiar. For £3, what did I have to lose? On first listen, this struck me as very ordinary. There is nothing overly innovative here and certainly no rapping of any description, although there was admittedly plenty of Michael Jackson-like yelps.
In fact this album, New Order's fourth studio album, struck me as a regression to their previous existence as Joy Division, with the first side (of the original vinyl record) all being guitar-based, often with layers of accoustic. What had happened to the beserk bass lines from their second album, "Power, Corruption and Lies"? Where were the ambient synthesizers of their third album "Low Life"? Where was the techno brilliance often found on their groundbreaking singles, collected in their compilation "Substance"?
On second listen, the album hit me as extraordinary. The first side feels strangely claustrophobic, with scrunched up guitars swirling against the mainly steadfast bass and drum beats. "Paradise" starts things off with a particularly earnest and urgent vocal delivery from Bernard Sumner, with its constant refrain "I want you, I need you" and a strange nod to Dolly Parton's "Jolene". "Weirdo" seems exactly that as the guitars, drums and vocals all seem out of kilter with each other, almost as if they are playing different songs, with only the bass holding things together. Again Sumner seems in a hurry, tripping through his vocals to make the words fit the space available. Eventually the instruments collide, as on most of the songs, to make a wall of sound not a million miles from Phil Spector.
"As It Is When It Was" provides for me the first major highlight, with Sumner seemingly at the end of his tether, on his knees, begging "whatever you think of me, listen hard and I will make you see." The bass kicks in to lend this song a masterful melancholic wistfulness, before the guitars swirl to take it even higher.
"Broken Promise" returns us to the ground of the first two songs, again overwhelmingly urgent, with Sumner again concerned with issues of trust and betrayal, as the guitars rush headlong against each other. The last song of the first side "Way of Life" continues in the same vein, with the vocals, guitars and drums yet again feeling slightly out of sync, with yet again the bass being pushed forward to hold the song together. The song ends with a riff stolen from "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
The throbbing, rumbling bass and frantic beats of a drum machine with synthesizer interludes herald the start of the second side, "Bizarre Love Triangle," and suddenly it seems like a totally different album. Although the songs are still overwhelmingly urgent, there now seems more room for the various instruments to explore their themes in this electronic side of the album. It's almost as if New Order are writing a thesis about music itself. This is where music was, the four piece of guitar, bass, drum and vocal, on the first side; this is where music can go, with the synthesizer keyboards and drum machines meshed with electronic guitars to create a pop symphonic sound on the second side.
Tony Wilson, their record company boss, termed this album New Order's equivalent to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and whether this was typical record company bombast or not, the album now is really starting to soar. "All Day Long" is such an urgent, subtle and beautiful song with Sumner's hushed, breathy vocals, that words cannot do it justice. "Angel Dust" continues along the symphonic journey with its apocalyptic sound, before the original closer "Every Second Counts."
This is an amazingly confident song with echoes of Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side." Sumner whispers his opening lines "Every second counts when I am with you; I think you are a pig, you should be in a zoo" before dissolving into giggles, presumably at the banality of his words. (Apart from anything else, a pig belongs in a farm, not a zoo). Somehow he manages to carry on. Even two and a half minutes into the song and he is still chuckling to himself as he fails to reach a high note. Whatever he is on, it seems to work and the song eventually closes in another triumphant wall of sound collision.
My album then has a single "State of the Nation" tacked on to it, which perhaps lacks in its vocal content, but doesn't seem out of place with its sympathetic mix and symphonic sound.
So there you go. I'm still not totally sure what to make of this or agree with what they've done here. Some of the songs don't even stand out particularly. Yet if New Order don't play strictly by the rules, somehow it seems to work.