Music » Music Review

Style and substance: New Order confronts an old saw



Critics—like parents—make the same mistakes generation after generation. Fashions and labels may change, but still one artist is dismissed for an unfocused emotionalism, another for offering style as a substitute for substance. Rock critics often ape their more literary counterparts, and are not immune to their ailments. For instance, a friend—a reformed rock critic and onetime member of a garage band who's now employed by the music industry—called about a year ago, and when talk turned to New Order and its compilation record of 80s dance music, he said, "They call it Substance, but that's just style."

This quarrel between style and substance is obviously on the minds of New Order. The group named its singles compilation Substance 1987, and it has just released a video compilation, Substance 1989. When the band delved back into music from its earlier incarnation as Joy Division, it named the record Substance 1988.

Anyone so insistent gives the impression of harboring a certain amount of defensiveness, and rock critics have been quick to seize on that. Foremost among them has been Jon Pareles of the New York Times, who earlier this year dismissed dance music in general and New Order in particular, stating that it was music for nowhere but the health club or the nightclub. As he is not a dancer, he wrote, and as the only exercise he ever gets is running to meet a deadline, the music is of no use to him. He began his review of New Order's latest album, Technique, with the question, "How cool is coldness?"

New Order's approach to the music and its packaging—in all formats, from singles to albums to videos to newspaper interviews—is so distanced and self-effacing that it invites misinterpretation. The band has taken the trouble to list its members on only a couple of its albums, and on the one occasion when photos were permitted (1985's Love Life), they were distorted. The band members do not often take part in interviews of any sort. This all tends to anger writers and critics—who in a typical catch-22 see this all as a pose designed to attract yet more fans—resulting in charges that New Order is a cold, selfless band that emphasizes style over substance.

Yet even a coarse familiarity with the music tells otherwise. Bernard Sumner/Albrecht, the group's guitarist and lead singer, would be a poseur if he were any less shy on record than he appears to be in real life. His vocals—like almost all the other elements of the band's music—run counter to the traditional blues roots of rock 'n' roll. They don't attempt to project emotion so much as they stifle or reject it. This would be an indictment in a rock band, and it would be a fatal flaw for most dance music (think of the recent "What You Don't Know" with Sumner singing), but New Order turns it into a grace point by its higher ambitions—as a pop band.

Technique clearly sets the band closer to the mainstream; even Pareles is willing to grant that. Yet it's not so much a question of New Order adapting its sound to accommodate the times as the exact opposite. The drum machines, free-floating bass lines, and occasional rhythm guitars, filled out with synth on top and bottom, have become such a trademark that—as with Tabasco sauce or Xerox copies—the entire civilization sometimes appears to be trying to copy it. However, the new familiarity listeners bring to the music does not hinder the band—it plays to its ambitions.

On Technique, with Sumner playing an acoustic rather than an electric guitar for most of the songs, New Order has a subdued, tactile texture. Yet what the songs share with other great pop music—and with great previous New Order works—is that the music is the message, the style the substance. Sumner can sing one thing, and the music can—and does—overrule him. The lyrics may project a certain cynicism at times, a naive romanticism at others; and the singing may appear to emphasize a certain resignation in both veins. But the music is carrying a completely different message—in the way its instruments lean on one another, and in the way it encourages the listener to lean on someone else. The Tribune dismissed Technique with a single phrase—"More songs about alienation and dancing"—ignoring the obvious: alienation and dancing are, one would imagine, incompatible.

None of the four persons in the band is very adept at playing his or her instrument. Their note patterns are almost always simple. Yet the way they combine makes the music undeniably complex. In his article Pareles wrote that he couldn't listen to New Order at home: he identified it too much with its dance and health club milieus. Yet if New Order doesn't survive the transition to one's home stereo, then neither does King Sunny Ade, or Public Enemy, or any of the other innumerable streams of hypersyncopated music of our time. When musicians get together, and each is playing a simple rhythmic pattern, and those patterns are combining, evolving, and recombining—then the music is making a certain statement, no matter what song the singer is singing. The music suggests that communication is possible, that teamwork exists, that—from time to time—four minutes on the dance floor with a complete stranger might just be enough to carry us on to another day. It functions equally well whether Sumner is mouthing overly optimistic paeans to love ("I've never met anyone quite like you before," "It's called love, and it belongs to us," "I know, you know, we believe in a land of love") or cynical statements that love is an illusion ("How does it feel, to treat me like you do?" "Why can't you see what you mean to me?" "Why won't you answer me?"). Because what New Order says in its every moment on record is that it's not intent or statements that matter, but actions.

Anyone requiring visual stimulation to emphasize this simple point should seek out Jonathan Demme's video for "The Perfect Kiss," which appears on Substance 1989. It's the one unique video in the compilation, because it remains simple while the others lapse into one or another of the various tricks typical of rock videos (strange creatures beating on one another in time to the music, overlapping images, hectic editing, crosscutting between two or more time frames). Set in the band's rehearsal room, the video at first focuses on nothing but faces and fingers: the uncomfortable expressions of band members rehearsing a song, the busy fingers of musicians performing music. When, some two-thirds of the way through, we get a long shot of the band together, the moment comes as a revelation. The video makes all the implicit meanings within the band's music overt.

The band would have been well-advised to take the same tack in its live performance at Poplar Creek late last month. After the gross, self-aggrandizing performance of Johnny Rotten and Public Image Ltd., New Order could have been no better set up for a performance of straight music—four heads bobbing in time as the songs pour out of the speakers. Instead, while Gillian Gilbert and Steven Morris hovered on the side and back of the stage on synth and drums, Sumner and bass player Peter Hook stepped out as polar opposites. Hook played aggressively. He wore his bass slung low, almost down to his knees, and he stressed notes with hefty shrugs of his shoulders and hips; he played bass the way some people move pianos, a metaphor stressed by his jeans, boots, sleeveless T-shirt, and hair tied back in a ponytail. Sumner, on the other hand, appeared on stage looking like someone who had just stepped off the sand at Grand Beach. He wore a pale blue New Order-tour T-shirt and long pale blue shorts—almost knee length—above Converse high-tops. Unsatisfied merely standing at the mike but uncomfortable with the usual rock-star poses, he circled with his arms out, like a child playing airplane, during the more transcendent moments; then he doubled over, hand on knee, to sing into the microphone during moments that demanded a more pained expression. Sumner doesn't work a crowd; he attempts to charm it with an almost cloying ineptitude. For a band whose music is so successfully contrived on record, it is perhaps the worst possible impression to give an audience.

This odd stage demeanor and the shortness of the set—barely over an hour, including encore—undercuts much of the above argument. If New Order believed in the music as its own statement—in action over intent, in style as substance—it would let the music stand in concert. Yet if in performance the band contradicts its records—or at least the meaning of its records—don't make too much of that. The records stand on their own, and they will stand for some time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Catlin.

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