This Changing World
Dec 15, 2015
Photography by Nick Wilson Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES
Bernard Sumner is in a chatty mood. Thirty-five years after they started, New Order is back with their best album in years, Music Complete, and Sumner is eager to explain just how new everything feels. You don't even have to ask; he'll tell you how exciting it was to work with a string section, about recording two tracks with The Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands, about getting Iggy Pop to do a dramatic reading for the album's "Stray Dog." For the first time in a long time, New Order has made an album that sounds upbeat and positive—at least until you examine the words. "It's probably spoiled by some of my more melancholic lyrics," Sumner laughs. "But that's a bit like bitterness and sweetness. They do work together in the same meal."
In May of 2007, everything was bitter for New Order. Longtime keyboardist Gillian Gilbert had left the band in 2001 and had just revealed she was fighting breast cancer. Stephen Morris, the band's drummer and her husband, had taken a leave of absence to care for her and their children. Even worse, founding member and bassist Peter Hook quit the band and threatened to sue Morris and Sumner—his bandmates since they formed Joy Division with the late Ian Curtis in 1976—if they continued to make music under the New Order moniker. The band never broke up—Sumner wants to make that clear—but by the end of 2007, you'd have been hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Instead, Sumner announced there were no plans to make any more New Order albums and started a new band, Bad Lieutenant, with New Order keyboardist Phil Cunningham and multi-instrumentalist Jake Evans. Hook went on to form Peter Hook and The Light and released a tell-all biography that threw more gasoline on his smoldering relationship with his former bandmates. And for four long years, the world heard nothing from New Order.
Then, Michael Shamberg, the producer of a handful of iconic New Order videos, came down with a mystery illness and asked his old friends to end their hiatus long enough to play a few charity shows for him. Hook did not participate, but Gilbert returned the fold, and those concerts—one each in Brussels, Paris, and London—earned glowing reviews and encouraged the band to continue on, their tour extending for an eventual 50 dates. Before long, new tracks began to emerge during their rehearsals and turning up in their set lists, and the tenth New Order album became inevitable.
"Just getting the feedback from the audience, we'd play little songs like 'Regret' and 'Ceremony' and 'Age of Consent,' but the part where they go apeshit is when we play the dance-inspired music," Sumner recalls. "So we decided to make this album, if not an out-and-out dance album, pretty beaty and up-tempo. We hoped they'd be songs that we could take out and play live."
It had been years since Sumner used the synthesizer as his primary instrument, and the most recent New Order albums had been largely guitar-driven. It was a strange evolution for a band whose pioneering use of electronics had revolutionized dance music, but Sumner says he was simply burned out on synthesizers by the late '90s. "Before you'd write a song, you'd go, 'Which of these pigeonholes does it fit? Is it house music? Yes. Well, is it deep house? Is it industrial house? Or techno? Is it shallow house? Which box does it fit in?' And you couldn't use certain sounds, because that sound happened last year. It all got a bit wearisome and tedious, but I think electronic dance music felt a bit more all-encompassing these days. I had a vacation from it, and now I'm back from the vacation, and it was really enjoyable to be working that way again."
Appropriately, "Singularity"—the first new song by the reunited New Order—is a study in meticulous synth-pop, all bubbling keyboard lines and twitchy beats. Similarly, "Plastic" is a collision of ping-ponging electronics and strobe light beats, the sort of track that wouldn't have sounded out of place during their mid-'80s heyday. But more than a pure dance-pop album, Music Complete ends up being a brief tour through everything the band has done well over the past three and a half decades, making stops in disco ("Tutti Frutti"), funk-pop ("People On the High Line"), and moody post-rock ("Nothing But a Fool"). Guest vocals by La Roux's Elly Jackson and The Killers' Brandon Flowers only add more variety to an album that is more inspired than anything we could have expected from a band that was on life support a decade ago."I'm very aware that after all this time we should be making boring music that doesn't have any energy and is perhaps a bit tired," Sumner says. "I'm aware that that happens in the natural lifespan of a band. It's just a lot of hard work and being aware that as you get older you have to try harder. We weren't short of ideas, that's for sure."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2015 Issue. This is its debut online.]
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