Firstly, a couple of New Order confessions. I’ve never been that upset about New Order carrying on without Pete Hook. Their live shows in 2012 were re-energised, hugely enjoyable and didn’t actually miss him. The second is that I’m biased to a great degree as with Technique, New Order created one of the five greatest British albums ever, all of which appeared in the period 1989-91: Technique, The Cure’s Disintegration, Depeche Mode’s Violator, Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour and Chorus by Erasure. Those five albums are the five finest by each band and represent landmarks in British pop music. Both Hook’s absence and Technique have been mentioned many times in the lead up to the release of Music Complete, but only one of those things has an impact upon listening to this album and that’s Technique. This album deserves to be considered as up there with the band’s 1989 masterpiece, and indeed Power, Corruption & Lies, as one of New Order’s best.
One of the first things to strike you about Music Complete is the length of the record. Its 11 tracks stretch to almost 65 minutes, giving it a distinct air of Substance in places which is, naturally, great. The shackles and, at times, uninspiring guitar led, if not dominated, feel of previous albums Waiting For The Siren’s Call and Get Ready are dispensed with and New Order once again unpack their synthesizers and go back to their electronic roots, reminding everyone of just how important they are to the world of electronic music. All that said though, opener Restless is a guitar led track, reminiscent of recent period New Order but crucially it is upbeat, lively and has a chorus that is a joy, meaning it feels much more like the likes of Regret than anything more recent. Many people reacted fairly badly when Restless was released but even just a couple of listens should be enough to convince you here. In an album that at times seems like a compendium of all the best bits of New Order, Restless fits in quite nicely. Singularity follows, starting a bit like a Joy Division track with its treated guitars, familiar bass and trademark Morris drums, before quickly blossoming into a Brotherhood era like electro rocker. The band sound revitalised and this track is sure to be one of many highlights of their forthcoming tour. It’s produced by Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers whose production gives it a noticeable degree of extra muscle.
One feature of this album is the guest appearances, some of which are more successful than others. Elly Jackson a.k.a La Roux features on three consecutive tracks, starting with Plastic, the first of the tracks here that takes us to full on Technique territory. It’s an absolute cracker which manages to cram in electro, techno, Pet Shop Boys at their danciest, an I Feel Love bassline and a superbly sung chorus (“It’s official/You’re fantastic/You’re so special/So iconic”) which is just, frankly, marvelous. What a track! Continuing the theme of echoing their career highlights, the part Confusion like NYC club meets Italian disco genius of Tutti Frutti follows. Its housey pianos popping up here and there, its Fine Time esque Barry White vocal parts and a ridiculous set of disco strings taking the song to its climax all work where they really shouldn’t and it’s unarguably superb. The last Jackson featuring track People On The High Line, a classic New Order song title if ever there was one (what does it even mean?) is next and takes the house pianos to a new level and sounds like something you’d have heard in The Hacienda. We could easily be back in the summer of 1989 here and that’s no bad thing at all.
Thus far, Music Complete is an unqualified success. Unfortunately the pace is slowed somewhat by Stray Dog which features a spoken word vocal from Iggy Pop. I just don’t get it really. The music is fine but, amidst the relentless “bloody hell New Order sound better than ever!” feel of the first 6 tracks, it’s incongruous and seems more like a b-side. The album wouldn’t suffer from its absence. Thankfully though, that’s just a temporary blip and Academic gets us back on course, revisiting the band’s less dancer, rockier past with a track that brings to mind the louder parts of Low Life, especially that album’s Sunrise. The feel of the band looking to their back catalogue for inspiration is heightened with Nothing But A Fool which is a punchy, more rock oriented track that rather marvellously has a bridge to the chorus that is pure Joy Division. What makes that even more of a treat is that it’s the chorus that is as poppy as you like and the juxtaposition of the two works perfectly.
Unlearn This Hatred (again very New Order) then comes along and surprises you with a 4 and a bit minute long burst of techno that is as enjoyable as it is surprising. Again, Tom Rowland produces and you get the feel he’s making New Order sound just like he would want them to. The penultimate track, The Game, once again revisits Technique, especially in the way that album managed to intertwine the band’s competing rock and dance sides and, whilst it could be said to be one of the album’s weaker tracks, there’s nothing really wrong with it. On previous New Order albums it would have stood out. We end on Superheated and, for me, it’s up there with New Order’s best. It’s as poppy as they’ve ever been and, in places, you feel the influence of their Mute Records colleague Vince Clarke, but to great effect. It’s a wonderful track and also features the last of the album’s collaborators, Brandon Flowers, who you imagine had the time of his life here. What a way to end what has to be one of the best albums of the year.
Every time one of the big influential acts of the 80’s and 90’s comes back, it’s usually said that their new album is up there with their best and, sadly, it’s usually wrong. Music Complete bucks that trend and with this record New Order have scaled heights that even the most optimistic fan must have thought they wouldn’t scale again. What appears to be central to it all is that they’ve fallen in love with electronic music again and as masters of that craft, we should rejoice in that. The fact they’ve released it on Mute Records is a lovely thing too as it fits perfectly on that label. Let’s hope it’s not, but if this is the last New Order album we ever get, then their musical mission is complete. A brilliant, effervescent, joy of a record and one everyone should hear.