Perverse old bastards
Perverse old bastards, New Order. How fitting that a grandiose retrospective of their career should be contrary, frustrating, a bit of a cock-up and shot through with a genius that seems more accidental than designed. How typical that ‘Retro’ affects to be a comprehensive survey of their long and frequently marvellous career, yet manages to piss off both casual fans (not enough classics) and obsessives (not enough unreleased stuff). Even the band look baffled by it all, ceding compiling duties to Bobby Gillespie, M-People’s Mike Pickering and a couple of trusted journalists. In one interview the other week, they spent quite a long time ridiculing the very idea of box sets, not least this one.
So why should anyone buy ‘Retro’? Doubtless, the record company will point proudly to Disc Five, a hodge-podge of nominal rarities added at the last moment following outraged complaints from fans. The only real treasure there, though, is a 17 and a half minute version of ‘Elegia’, the churchy, awe-inspiring instrumental from 1985’s ‘Lowlife’. Worth getting for the hits, then? Hardly, since ‘Retro’ features 66 tracks and still has no room for ‘Thieves Like Us’, ‘Murder’, ‘Love Vigilantes’ and ‘Vanishing Point’, amongst others. We’d direct you to 1994’s ‘(The Best Of)’, but that was a botch job, too.
Throw in a discful of patchy remixes and another one of inessential live tracks, and ‘Retro’ isn’t looking like the best pre-Christmas investment. It does have a couple of valuable uses, though: to remind us what a fantastic band New Order can be; and to urge anyone who doesn’t own their proper albums to find those instead. For buried in ‘Retro’ are two discs – ‘The Hits’ and ‘The Early Years’ – that show New Order set the template, possibly by mistake, for much of the best British music of the past 20 years. Here’s where dance met rock, Manchester met Ibiza, art met attitude and pop met credibility. Here’s the model for every insouciant, aspirational gang who’ve wanted to transcend their roots while staying true to them.
And here, let’s not forget, is some truly strange and great music, with a character far too idiosyncratic to be copied, no matter how hard hundreds of bands have tried. The perfect New Order song – and there are plenty of them, like ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Temptation’, even last year’s ‘Crystal’ – manages to be both euphoric and anxious. Some of the synths might sound rather dated these days, but the band’s great gift is to draw inspiration from what they hear in clubs and on the radio, then hammer that music into the peculiar shape of New Order songs. Rave anthems collide with post-punk melancholy, chanted platitudes give way to awkward tenderness. On ‘Confusion’, Bernard Sumner has a protracted argument with himself and tries to make schizophrenia fashionable. Not much of this should work, but an abnormal amount of it does, brilliantly.
The proof is in the albums. Buy ‘Lowlife’ first and ‘Republic’ last. Then, if you must, buy ‘Retro’. Plenty of it is very good indeed. But don’t say we didn’t warn you. . .