New Order - Singles
Alex Worsnip 03/10/2005
Just how many compilations can New Order (or perhaps more accurately their record label) squeeze out of their (admittedly prolific) career? Give that we've already had Substance, The Best of New Order, International and Retro, you would think a fifth best of/greatest hits would be reasonably unnecessary. But here it is: Singles. Perhaps the most definitive yet: admittedly. It opts for chronological sequencing, always a good idea for following a band that has undergone many changes. That means that we open with 'Ceremony', originally a Joy Division song but rescued from obscurity by New Order in their latter incarnation. It remains the best thing they've recorded (which is indicative of the superiority of Joy Division): an utterly glorious, dark yet uplifting track with perfect instrumentation that actually, in this writer's opinion, surpasses the Joy Division song, and in fact challenges anything that Joy Division recorded at all quite seriously.
The one notable thing, though, is the inadequacy of Sumner's voice compared to Curtis. On 'Ceremony', it somehow works, but it's a gripe that runs through the whole of the collection: it just hasn't got particularly great range; it's not a rock n roll singer's voice, it's that of a guitarist who occasionally takes lead vocals and doesn't ever feel quite comfortable doing it. The Joy Division-with-synthesisers feel continues through the excellent 'Procession' and one or two other tracks, but after that it all goes dance. And here begins the ultimate New Order debate: electronic music pioneers, or a mediocre, commercial pop act that don't have a patch on their roots. And in fact, the answer is: both. The problem with New Order's 80s period, like so much 'pioneering' dance music is that the production, and the electronics employed, have dated horribly. So you have this odd situation where, although doubtless influential on countless electronic acts as well as rock bands that incorporated dance into their sound, New Order just sound rather cheesy. Tracks like 'Confusion', 'Shellshock', 'Touched By The Hand of God' and 'Sub-Culture' are full of dated synth stabs that would go down like a lead balloon in any self-respecting dance club in 2005. Of course dotted through are tracks like 'True Faith' where the underlying quality of the songwriting overcomes the production, but it's nevertheless something to be overcome: even the seminal 'Blue Monday' has a touch of cringe to it more than once when listened to now.
After this period New Order went into their super-dancey period, complete with vocodered voices and acid house touches. This is the worst material, because by this stage (1989 and 1993, essentially) technology had moved on quite considerably, indeed by the latter date some of the great electronica bands of the 90s, whose music still sounds fresh now, were emerging. But New Order remained in a cheese-filled vacuum, bound up with the superficiality of the Ibiza scene: their 'mad-fer-it' antics (which still remain today with ridiculous live touches like dancing horses) absurdly far removed from the persona of Curtis. Tracks like 'Fine Time' and 'World' blend lazy rhyme-a-long lyrics with plastic music. Of course, they still pulled out the odd good track: the indie-rock flavoured 'Run' an oasis of calm, and the single 'Regret' being pure unashamed pop, but very good at it. The less said about 'World In Motion', however, as we all know, the better.
After this period there was a protracted absence, during which Sumner particularly went off with Johnny Marr (who really should have known better) in side-project Electronic, who, similarly, were occasionally inspired but often laughable. The comeback has, as always, had mixed results, from the awesome guitars-and-synths rush of comeback single 'Crystal', where the songwriting finally gets the production treatment it deserve, to its plodding follow-up '60 Miles An Hour' and the weak slew of singles from the latest album. Encouragingly, though, it ends on a high note with the final single from the album, 'Turn', which is by far the best, ploughing similar ground to 'Run' but with even better results, a great wistful melody, and more than a touch of Smiths about the guitar work. This latest period tells the New Order story: sometimes inspired, sometime cringeworthy, and immensely frustrating for this lack of consistency. Still, their impact has been unquantifiable, for better or worse, and Singles documents it warts and all. Fortunately, amongst the warts, there's some excellent all.