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There was just one guideline for the new New Order album. "The overall vibe was 'let's make a dance record,'" says guitarist Phil Cunningham. "That was the only thing that was said".
That seed eventually blossomed into Music Complete, the dense, pacy, 65-minute record that marks the iconic group's ninth LP – or tenth if you count 2013's Lost Sirens – and possibly their most eclectic collection of songs yet. Whichever way you count it, it's New Order's return to recording after an absence of more than a decade, and it's an album that finds the group revitalised, refreshed and razor sharp, looking to their past while forging forward. Where the group has previously pushed toward synthesisers or guitars, here the two are in balance, so while echoes of the band's electronic origins abound in tracks such as ‘Singularity’ and ‘Plastic’, the sprawling ‘Nothing but a Fool’ introduces blues guitar and even echoes of Joy Division. "We wanted to go back to the roots of New Order and make an electronic record, and I think we’ve achieved that," says bassist Tom Chapman, "but we also wanted to be brave."
For frontman Bernard Sumner, it's been a case of falling back in love. "The last two albums have been pretty guitar-based, and that's because for my part I needed a holiday from synthesisers," he says. "I couldn't see the wood for the trees any more; I needed to take a few hundred steps back and rediscover the guitar, which is actually what I started on in Joy Division. You fall in love and out of love with an instrument, but in a healthy way, because when we came to make this album I felt well ready to get back involved with synthesisers and electronics."
For programmer/drummer Stephen Morris, working with London band Factory Floor re-awoke him to the power of electronics. "I blame Factory Floor for getting me back into bands making repetitive noise," he says. "It jogs your memory a bit about the way you used to do things, seeing young people jigging about to things with wires hanging out the back. You think, 'Ah, that used to be me – maybe we could do that again.'"
Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands, who produces two tracks, adds a harder edge to ‘Singularity’ & ‘Unlearn This Hatred’, and co-worked on the Italodisco-flavoured ‘Tutti Frutti’. Meanwhile, a handful of big-name guest artists bring their own distinct flavours too. La Roux's Elly Jackson adds vocals to ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘People on the High Line’, Killers frontman Brandon Flowers contributed the chorus to cinematic closing track ‘Superheated’ and Iggy Pop is preacher-like in his reading of Bernard's American Gothic poem, ‘Stray Dog’.
In reality, there nearly wasn't another New Order album. In 2007, the band was in disarray. Two years after eighth album Waiting For The Siren's Call and a year after their last live shows, founding bassist Peter Hook left the band. The members shifted focus to pursuits outside of the band: Bernard formed Bad Lieutenant with Jake Evans, Tom and Phil, with Stephen joining on several tracks and playing live. Stephen also returned to writing music and soundtracks as The Other Two with wife Gillian, who had withdrawn from New Order to care for their daughter in 2001.
The group reunited in 2011 to play three benefit shows for artist, filmmaker and former Factory USA boss Michael Shamberg, a long time collaborator who was struggling with severe illness. There was, admits Stephen, some trepidation about how the group would be accepted without one of its founding members: "People might not have liked the idea of us not having the same bass player. People might have thought we were a bit shit. But luckily, they didn't."
Undoubtedly, it helped that Gillian returned to the fold. "It was a bit hairy going back; you're quite nervous," she says. "But when the audience is chanting your name and all the rest of it, it feels really good. It had been really hard taking that sabbatical, especially when they carried on without me. For so long, being on tour was my job and suddenly you're at home just getting on with things. But my family are more important."
The response to the shows was phenomenal and the group were coaxed back on the road, often visiting places they'd neglected for years - there were multiple trips to America, South America, Mexico, Russia, Australia, Japan, Korea and more in the three-and-a-half years that followed. The sets they performed mined heavily the band's greatest hits – but also included reworked versions of songs from Bernard and Stephen's days in Joy Division less well known New Order songs such as ‘1963’ ‘Thieves Like Us’, ‘Round and Round’, ‘I’ll Stay with You’, ‘California Grass’ & ‘586’ – and the reactions from the crowds began to shape the idea of what new New Order music should sound like. "In a studio you're looking at life through a letterbox; you don't know what's turning your fans on, but we know from playing all those gigs that the dance side of New Order is very important to our fans," says Bernard.
Soon, brand new tracks began to work their way into sets, beginning with the then-untitled ‘Singularity’, which was debuted at Lollapalooza Chile, and ‘Plastic’. "That's how they used to test new songs out in Joy Division," says Tom. "They'd write a new track and rather than record it they'd play it live and see how it went down with the crowd." For all in the group, it was important to show fans they'll never be happy being a nostalgia act. "To be a real band, a live and vibrant entity, you have to do the things that bands do – and that's make music, not just keep replaying the past," explains Bernard. "We could just go out on the road and play endlessly, but if you've got a creative bug you need to feed it and breathe new life into the band"
Ask any of the band's members how the new LP came about and they'll play down the process ("There's always a question over whether you'll make another album, but at the same time there isn't, because it's just what you do," says Stephen), but making a new album was never a foregone conclusion. The idea, initially, was to record and release music in short bursts. "We did start off thinking we'd do EPs, because the music industry has changed so much and EPs are what most people do now, and I like things short and sweet," says Gillian. But the lure of recording a full album won out. "In the past, New Order has gone away for a long time to make an album, toured for a bit and then disappeared, and we were trying not to do that," says Bernard. "But I still like the idea of doing a full album – something that I feel has more punch to it."
While a great deal of the album was produced by the band and mixed by Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, The National, Arctic Monkeys), the sound and the personnel on Music Complete reflect its origins as a more modern, piecemeal work. Tom Rowlands was drafted in not as producer of the whole record, while Richard X (Pet Shop Boys, M.I.A., Goldfrapp) mixed ‘Plastic’ and Stuart Price (The Killers, Madonna) co-produced ‘Superheated’. "I worked with the Chemical Brothers on the song ‘Out Of Control’ [from 1999's Surrender] and I really enjoyed it, then we did another song with them, ‘Here To Stay’, for 24 Hour Party People," says Bernard. "There wasn't really a thought of Tom producing the whole album because he's very clear and stylised in one particular groove, and this album is so varied, covering such a large spectrum. I don't think he would want to do that."
For Gillian, the album has been a chance to reconnect with a version of the New Order that existed before her sabbatical. "Tracks like ‘The Game’ and ‘Restless’, I hope they sound a bit more like old New Order," she says. "I think they have a bit of emotion that was missing from the last couple of albums. I like songs that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up."
Recorded largely in the winters of 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, the group's return to the studio in a new configuration required some recalibration of old idiosyncrasies. "The rest of them were all in Bad Lieutenant together, but I didn't know Phil or Tom at all," says Gillian, "But it was refreshing really – ‘Restless’ was one of the first songs that me, Stephen, Tom and Phil came up with altogether."
"There was a bit of feeling it out, but it's like that when you work with anyone," agrees Phil. "There were a good few months where we were testing the water and scratching our heads, but it's like anything – if you put the time in, it comes out right. The chemistry ended up great."
The group worked largely at Stephen and Gillian's farm in Cheshire and Bernard's home studio. As in the past, Gillian and Stephen tended to work as a unit, Tom and Phil formed another union, and Bernard tended to work alone. "I like working on my own because there's no one to argue with," he says.
Solitude is particularly key to the final part of the process – the lyrics – which are exclusively written by the singer. "Bernard doesn't sing anything he doesn't like any more," says Stephen. "We used to make him sing some awful words in the past." Says Sumner: "I write in a very subconscious way; it’s not like writing a book or an article. It's that magical thing, you write one line and think, 'What's that about?' Then you write another line and another, and it starts to take shape."
Sumner doesn't like to unpick his words, but if one thing stands out it's that the fire in his belly still rages. Opening track ‘Restless’ rails against materialism, and the title of ‘Unlearn This Hatred’ speaks for itself. As for ‘Stray Dog’'s rambling poem, that was a first for Bernard. "I really liked the music – it was one that I think Stephen and Gillian put together – and I was looking for words for it," he says. "After Christmas last year, I just sat down one night and wrote a poem, which I've never done before. “The previous year some of us had done a charity concert with Iggy and Phillip Glass, which I felt had gone well, so I did a demo and I could just hear Iggy speaking the words, so I did a really bad Iggy impression – his voice is about three octaves lower than mine – and sent it off to him. I just got an email back saying, 'I can do this'."
Where New Order looked up to Iggy Pop from their earliest days making music together, Brandon Flowers and Elly Jackson hold New Order in the same esteem – Flowers' band took their name from a fictional group in the video for 2001's ‘Crystal’ and has since become a good friend of the band, and Jackson supported the band at a series of US shows. After watching Elly Jackson from the side of the stage, Bernard had asked her to do some backing vocals. Gillian was also keen, “I thought she was dead good. She comes across as being quite austere in her videos but she wasn't like that at all." Jackson joined sessions at Bernard's house. "We got on like a house on fire," he says. "She's a laugh and she talks quite a lot!". The band also used several local friends and musicians on backing vocals, Dawn Zee and Denise Johnson, with the strings orchestrated by Joe Duddell with the Manchester Camerata.
While there's change - new collaborators, new members, new old members - there's also continuity. Peter Saville, the in-house artist at Factory Records and the man responsible for New Order's groundbreaking artwork for the past 35 years, has designed a sleeve featuring Mondrian-like geometric shapes inspired by Tudor architecture. Like the album, it's something fresh and new informed by structures of the past. The band also find themselves in a new home at Mute, marking the Factory founders' return to a defiantly independent label.
The album's title seems to shine a hue on New Order's new manifesto: new line-up, newly eclectic sound, reinvigorated in their fourth decade as a unit. Music Complete? They're only just getting started again. "There's a habit of the band disappearing from time to time, but I don't think there's any danger of that," concludes Phil. "We've finished the record and we're pretty pleased with it. Now we want to get out there and play it…"
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