Three years ago, New Order returned to American audiences at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, where they were granted an hour-long set at the paltry and oft-ignored Live Stage. (How cordial of the festival, who vehemently boast about offering the world’s best DJs and unparalleled production on an annual basis.) It was a balmy Friday evening, most of the festivalgoers hadn’t even arrived yet, and the sun was still massaging the One Biscayne Tower. “It’s great to be back,” frontman Bernard Sumner told the devoted handful. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been here, I don’t why, probably because it’s too nice. We don’t do that sort of thing.” The truth is that the English outfit was still figuring shit out.
Less than seven months had passed since New Order officially reunited, and in that time, they had only performed a dozen shows prior to Miami, all of which consisted of a carbon copy setlist chock full of serviceable fan favorite hits. Missing was bassist Peter Hook, who had walked off back in 2007, only to kick off a nostalgic run of books and tours that capitalized on the Joy Division and New Order brands. Yet, returning to the fold was keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who had originally stepped away in the early aughts to care for her and Stephen Morris’ children. Having played in Sumner’s blink-and-miss side-project Bad Lieutenant, bassist Tom Chapman was tagged to replace Hook, rounding out the early days of New Order’s murky and uncertain new era.
That future is now wide open and bright thanks to Music Complete. As the band’s first official album of new material since 2005’s Waiting for the Sirens’ Call — 2013’s Lost Sirens was essentially a glorified B-sides collection eight years in the making — the 11-track release finds Sumner, Morris, Gilbert, and Chapman turning the knobs down on the six-strings in lieu of a fresh electronic sound. Many critics and fans have already pointed to 1989’s Technique as a likely parallel, an album that placed New Order on the party island of Ibiza, which in turn led to the incorporation of Balearic beats and acid house influences. Music Complete is hardly as radical of a departure; instead, it’s an assured return to an arena that has become all too popular and claustrophobic.
(Read: An Interview with New Order)
“Restless”, “Singularity”, and “Plastic” might be the strongest three-prong opener of any album released this year — or even in the last half decade. Histrionic statement? Possibly, but try sitting down after that 18-minute blow to the feet. Sumner goes into full-on Rocky mode and proves it’s not over ’til it’s over for this band of veterans, laying to waste the majority of the acclaimed younger electronic artists tinkering with rust-covered beats in their bedrooms. The tracks are energetic and pummeling, but they’re also subtly fueled by serious issues. Sumner isn’t exactly foaming at the mouth here, but he does get a little heated lyrically, venting about greed and consumption (“Restless”) and disintegrating relationships (“Plastic”).
Because it’s loaded with guests, there’s a transparent curatorial awareness to Music Complete, one that’s surprisingly engaging and effective. La Roux’s Elly Jackson adds power to the already fiery “Plastic”, but vocally elevates “Tutti Frutti” and “People on the High Line” with a bubbly cadence and a youthful wash; Iggy Pop channels Leonard Cohen to agreeable effect on “Stray Dog”, arguably this album’s “Giorgio by Moroder”; and longtime fan and friend Brandon Flowers harmonizes alongside Sumner on “Superheated” to yank the curtain down with supreme melody. Behind the scenes, The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands injects some adrenaline into “Singularity” and “Unlearn this Hatred”, while super-producer Stuart Price signs off on the starry closer.
It’s interesting to note that when they are on their own, New Order tends to turn towards more guitar-driven work — however, they still sound so fresh and assured. “Oh baby, I remember you,” Sumner croons late into the album on “Academic”, and really, he could just as well be talking about himself. Seven tracks in, he’s still oozing searing confidence, and you can almost see the smile curl up his face when he turns toward his six-string for the extended solo. This, “Restless”, “Nothing But a Fool”, and “The Game” are all sans guests and, not surprisingly, they’re more in line with Waiting for the Sirens’ Call or even the aforementioned Bad Lieutenant. It’s almost as if they saved the true dancing for their friends.
(Read: New Order’s Top 10 Songs)
That wouldn’t necessarily be out of line. In a recent interview with The Fader, Morris bemoaned how technology has divided society, despite creating the illusion that we’re all connected. “Social media and the way everyone’s in touch immediately, but isn’t really in touch — it worries me,” he explained, eventually adding: “It feels like something’s gone wrong somewhere. You have a vision of what the future’s gonna be and when you get there, it’s not. The way that there’s no shops in town any more; the big town centers are just completely gone.” There’s something about that discontent that speaks to the collaborative nature of these tracks and why they’re the liveliest on the album. Perhaps it’s the band’s way of insisting upon physical bonds.
Or maybe that’s looking too far down the rabbit hole of hypotheticals. After all, it’s not like they haven’t had their fair share of friends over in the past; 2001’s Get Ready infamously included The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan (“Turn My Way”) and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie (“Rock the Shack”). Yet, in hindsight, those inclusions felt more like happenstance than anything particularly conceptual. On Music Complete, however, the guest list highlights the idea that New Order has returned and they’re ready to have some fun again — with you, with friends, with the scene. It’s the rare late era LP that blossoms with life, while also echoing the past, as Peter Saville’s minimalist cover art suggests. Needless to say, they’ve got this shit down again.
Essential Tracks: “Plastic”, “Singularity”, and “Restless”