True Blue

New Order's recent work has fallen off, but its legacy speaks for itself

In the summer of 1986, as they had for many years before that, my parents sent me off to camp in the hills above Santa Cruz. Care packages filled with sugar were strictly verboten, but one sunny day mail call yielded something far sweeter: a padded envelope containing New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies. Its lush, funereal cover seemed the perfect counterpoint to the organized fun that went against my every adolescent instinct. Its clear plastic cassette case smelled like a heady mixture of myrrh and gasoline there beneath the redwoods, and I huffed it deeply. (I did the same thing with Prince's Around the World in a Day as I sat through my eighth-grade graduation rehearsal, but that's another story.) And its aura of pervasive melancholy dangled like a lifeline to an adult world I could hardly understand, but wanted to, badly, as only a sullen teenager can.

By autumn I had my learner's permit, and I would helm the family Corolla on the seven-minute drive to high school while my dad sat patiently in the passenger seat. New Order hadn't lost its grasp on me, and pretty much every single day I would pop in a mix tape I'd recorded, which I'd fast-forward to the eight-minute extended remix of "The Perfect Kiss," off the group's 1985 album Low-Life. (My father, bless his soul, was deaf -- he couldn't have cared less if it had been Twisted Sister in permanent rotation.) Pulling up in front of Woodrow Wilson High's landscaped grounds before the song had finished seemed perverse, but those gloomy guitars, cellophane strings, and chattering drum machines -- not to mention lyrics that ended in "the kiss of death," which might as well have been commissioned by a high school sophomore dreading his daily dose of public humiliation -- proved perfect for the drive through rolling suburbs.

My father passed away this year (for the soundtrack to that episode, see Iron & Wine's "Sodom, South Georgia"), and I went home to clean out the house where I'd grown up. I found that same cassette, a black Maxwell number with silver decals, lying forgotten in a desk drawer. On a hunch, I slipped it into a tape deck, and there it was: "The Perfect Kiss," stopped in mid-conga roll, its last minute of '80s disco madness frozen on pause for damn near 20 years.

This is all a very long way of explaining that New Order was never just another band for me; it was theband, part of the holy trinity that included the Cure and Depeche Mode (and surrounded by the acolytes Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and all the rest of the great new wave pantheon). New Order marked my passage out of childhood, as mysterious as an older sibling who lived far away but returned to visit bearing dazzling tales of another world: 1986's Brotherhood, with its steely industrial cover, hinted at European shipyards, and 1989's Techniquetaught my college roommates and I about acid house long before we -- well, I, anyway -- even knew what Ecstasy was.

Of course, any number of bands could fill this place in their fans' hearts, but New Order forged an unusual number of exceptionally strong bonds, thanks in part to the act's longevity, and in part to its malleability. Regrouping after the 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis, the singer of the pre-New Order outfit Joy Division, members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Gillian Gilbert, and Stephen Morris were haunted by loss from the get-go, and every album felt like some kind of reinvention, the fabled seven stages of grief played out across decades. New Order grew up alongside us, reflecting our own changing tastes as we discovered new sounds. No wonder the quartet was tapped for an edition of the mix-CD series Back to Mine -- based upon the music New Order turned us on to, that tightknit set had to have the coolest record collection around.

Age, side projects, and family life -- the band's members have nine children between them -- have slowed down the group. After 1993's uneven Republic, eight years passed before the guitar-heavy hodgepodge Get Ready, and now, another four years on, we're given Waiting for the Sirens' Call. It's inconsistent, yeah; some of Sumner's lyrics are goofy, to say the least, and several of its riffs feel like barely veiled variations on, well, every other song in the band's catalog. Even these tracks sure can sink a melody into your subconscious, though: Not for nothing is the group's bass player named Hook.

Many fans have suggested that New Order, having long outgrown its post-punk and Madchester days, is merely milking it, and the band's own members don't necessarily inspire confidence that that's not the case. "It's really strange," says drummer Morris, "when you sit down and say, 'Right, we're going to write an album,' and you haven't got the faintest idea how to do that anymore -- you've forgotten how to write songs. It's always like that. We just sort of scratch our heads and sit around jamming; it's a relief when you actually write your first track -- you're so relieved that you can still do it, it spurs you on." If you're as much of a fan of the band as I am, you might want to stop reading now: Morris confesses that the group once purchased a book on how to write pop songs (key kernel of advice: Start with the title).

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