Album Reviews

New Order’s Substance: Music History in Singles

New Order formed out of Joy Division’s demise in the wake of Ian Curtis’ suicide. Morris, Sumner and Hook embarked on a new age journey and embraced the synth sound they explored in Joy Division’s tracks Isolation, Disorder and Love Will Tear Us Apart. Much like The Smiths, some of New Order’s best work was found on singles and B sides. Factory Records knew this and created Substance, which is a collection of singles and B sides from 1981 – 1987. Even though this is not an album review in the classic sense, it is a collection of New Order tracks that best encapsulates the band’s sound and influence. Also, it marks an interesting transition from Joy Division to New Order with one of the most interesting singles releases during this period…but more about that later.

The first track we will look at is the most interesting, which is Ceremony. This is one of the last tracks written by Ian Curtis during his final days with Joy Division. There are some live versions of this track with Ian and a rare studio demo on a Joy Division box set; however, Ian died before it could make it to a studio album. New Order recorded this song as its first single, which is an interesting move. You can hear Joy Division in the track with the tinny Factory production, bass lines and guitar. Moreover, it has Curtis’ telltale lyrical focus on regret and impending doom. However, it is not the lyrics or instrumentation that is interesting. What is interesting is the fact that New Order recorded it at all and put it out as their first single. It is a musical version of grieving and closure. This was New Order paying respect to Joy Division and Ian before making their own way. It was a way for the band, and the fans, to come together for Ian before turning the page. In a way, Ceremony had to be the first single in order for the band to move past Joy Division. This was unfinished business left after Ian’s death that needed to be properly recorded in order to fully heal.

It is rare that a band’s biggest hit is known more as a single than for the record. But, that’s the case with New Order’s Blue Monday in 1983. After its release, it was added to some cassette and CD versions of the Power Corruption and Lies record, but most people know it from the cart destroying single. To say Blue Monday is an iconic electro dance track is like saying Michelangelo’s David is a nice piece of stone. Blue Monday shaped music for decades and it still covered and featured in films to this day. There is some blinding neon synth, but the key is how this Spaghetti Western bass line gives the track a sense of gravity. The bass line really grounds the track and provides a great foil to Sumner’s steal robotic vocal delivery. The groove is incredible with lush landscapes and dripping synth chords, but cymbals and Sumner’s vocal gives the track a punk vibe not too far removed from Joy Division’s Interzone. It is the intersection between electronic decadence and punk rawness that gives the track its complexity. Even though this is an incredible track, it is not my favourite on the record.

My favourite New Order track not only embraces neon electronica, but bathes in it like a 4 year old in a turn of the century fountain in the park. That track is True Faith. I adore this track. This track is Hook and Sumner putting all synths up to 11. Morris is hitting electric drums with only the slightest hint of an electric guitar to keep you from fully drowning in opulent electronica. I love the soaring nature of this track and the way the syth creates this expansive landscape you want to run through and never leave. Having said that, there are still hints of the Factory tinny production style made famous on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.This illustrates how Hook, Sumner and Morris are never too far away from their formative years in that band. This is a track that you play at night, driving down a long highway after a killer party. You sing it as loud as you can and pound on the steering wheel as you channel your inner Stephen Morris.

Hearing New Order, I wonder if this is where Joy Division was headed if not for Ian Curtis’ death. Even though I think that Joy Division would not have gone as electronic as New Order ultimately did, I would have loved to hear Curtis on some of these tracks. What I love about New Order is that they still have the punk foundation they laid bare in Joy Division, but with a new electronic coat of paint. Most importantly, New Order shows how a band can evolve and flourish from the ashes of tragedy. Now, Sumner and Hook will ultimately break up over irreconcilable differences, but my favourite era of New Order is when they were both at their creative peaks.

Listen to New Order’s Substance

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