Better Than Prozac
Listening to New Order.
In the mid-1990s, a story circulated in the British music press about how Bernard Sumner, the leader of the band New Order, had participated in a BBC documentary about the effects of Prozac. He had written lyrics under its influence and then submitted to psychoanalysis. As a clean-living and curious teen, I was deeply concerned: I had no idea what Prozac was. My research revealed that it was a drug, but not one that set the user a-swirling. Rather, it was designed to make you feel content and more or less tempered. I found it strange that people needed a drug to induce this kind of spiritual evenness—placid and calm, happy but not cripplingly so. I already knew the feeling well: This was exactly how listening to New Order felt.
Some years later, New Order still constitutes its own genre of happy-sad, future-shocked music, and they are as popular as ever. The quartet of Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Phil Cunningham—Gillian Gilbert, an original member, left in 2001—remain committed to that arch, intimidating name. Their moves—a middle-register bass line here, some synthesizers and drum machines there—have been successfully absorbed into the rock playbook. (One shudders to think what Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, the Killers, the Bravery, and She Wants Revenge would have sounded like otherwise.) Last year, the U.K. music weekly New Musical Express bestowed New Order with a Godlike Genius Award. More recently, New Order agreed to score director Anton Corbijn's biopic of the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis—a significant move given that they spent the 1980s dodging questions about Curtis, the star of their previous incarnation—and their music appears in the oft-e-mailed trailer for Sofia Coppola's upcoming film, Marie Antoinette.
The hallmark of the group is their deep concern with the terms of their canonization. Over their 25 years, they have released nearly as many micromanaged compilations as proper albums. They are a complicated band often reduced to a set of signifiers, which makes it intriguing to consider what they offer today, now that the anxiously influenced have swooped in and claimed New Order's sound as their own.
One would have been hard-pressed to foresee all this when the band formed in 1980. That year, the suicide of Curtis brought the thrilling career of Manchester's Joy Division to a close. Almost immediately, the remaining trio of Sumner, Hook, and Morris reformed (with Morris' girlfriend, Gilbert) as New Order. They did not look like a happy bunch. Without the dark magnetism of Curtis—and saddled with yet another bizarre, Nazi-riffing name —the first iteration of New Order wasn't a particularly exciting one. Their spooked classic of a debut single, "Ceremony," was completed only after the band digitally cleaned up rehearsal recordings of Curtis (he hadn't left behind lyrics). New Order's 1981 debut album, Movement, was a murky and gloomy postscript to their Joy Division days. Often, it sounded like Sumner was singing through floorboards, as though he were merely haunting the track.
As the 1980s unfolded into a period of great excess, New Order began to test the limits of their lofty moniker. Drugs and dance music—each available in abundance at the Hacienda, the legendary Manchester superclub they bankrolled—seeped into their method. (A three-disc collection of Hacienda classics compiled by Hook was released last month.) Subsequent singles ("Everything's Gone Green," " Temptation") suggested a way of streamlining the ethereal dread of Joy Division into clanging, assembly-line dance-pop. Everything changed in 1983, with the release of the album Power, Corruption & Lies and the singles "Blue Monday" (the best-selling 12-inch single of all time) and the hip-hop crossover hit "Confusion."
It wasn't merely the embrace of new technology that allowed for this quantum leap. In Sumner, New Order's earliest liability slowly evolved into its secret weapon. The band had borrowed elements from club music and guitar rock—two forms that, in the 1980s, seemed allergic to subtlety or intimacy—and crafted something large-sounding, smart, and reluctant. Once Sumner realized that he could never conjure Curtis' existential woes with the same literal force, New Order became a brilliant shell game of perfect moments, divine transcendence, wicked wit, and intense, hurtful bruising, all conveyed in the flattest, most matter-of-fact tones possible.
Songs like "Your Silent Face" or " Regret" feel deeply melancholy, though not because of Sumner's singing—he remains stout and unflappable. It's everything else—Hook's lyrical, spotlighted bass lines, Gilbert's singeing synth lines or the life-goes-on insistence of the beat—that conveys the cavern between the ups and downs of existence. Sometimes, he seems dazed and wandering within the song. One of the few transparent moments of Sumner's career occurs on "Every Little Counts" (off 1986's Brotherhood) when he cracks up laughing while singing the first verse. ("The words were so bad," he would later reveal.)
New Order's music described new feelings, new possibilities of experience: lost in thought at a club, Godlike (or bored) on drugs, anxious about nothing in particular, hesitant to say anything too direct, alone but unafraid of modern life. It's why the band still sounds as though they're of a different vintage. Others may have mimicked New Order's dance-rock sound, but not that oddly affecting, dampened-down stillness at its heart.
Perhaps the most intriguing recent bit of New Order-spotting is the trailer to Coppola's upcoming film, Marie Antoinette. Set to one of the band's greatest (and, oddly, least anthologized) songs, "Age of Consent," the teaser screams with splendid colors and evocative slivers from the film, which stars Kirsten Dunst as the queen. Though the juxtaposition of old France and New Order is jarring, it makes perfect sense: Coppola, like the band she loves, traffics in a deadpan, things-unsaid melancholy. Nobody in the trailer speaks, except for Sumner and the band. The flashes of drinking, dancing, fireworks, and fatty, 18th-century foods dissolve into vacant stares and disenchantment. Soon, Marie Antoinette's troubled visage is whisked off-screen by Gilbert's synths: She's not sure what to call it, but she's feeling something she's never felt before.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from "Ceremony"© 1980 Factory Records; Power, Corruption & Lies © 1983 Qwest; Brotherhood © 1986 Qwest; Republic ©1993 Qwest and Substance © 1987 Qwest. All rights reserved.