Box sets are a diverse and curious animal. With their high-touch feel, informative and entertaining booklets, and oversized packaging, they tend to make a great gift for music lovers. On the other hand, longtime fans may feel let down when artists repackage a bunch of material they already have, especially in an age when it's so easy to make custom playlists on the computer and read up on acts all across the Web.
Many box sets offer career-spanning overviews of acts often defunct, at least as recording artists that are considered to have a legacy worthy of upscale packaging and preservation. From my own collection, the (four-disc) Who and (three-disc) Clash boxes come to mind as quality examples of this "expanded best-of" approach, with some rarities tossed in to help curb outcries of "ripoff!" Other box sets take a thematic approach, like Johnny Cash's Love, God, Murder set, which features a disc dedicated to each of the three central subjects of the Man in Black's work.
Boxes that cover a specific aspect of a longstanding artist's career, like Tracks, Bruce Springsteen's four-disc collection of outtakes and b-sides, or his Live 1975-1985 set, also exist. There are also boxed collections of all the singles and EPs a band has ever done, like Massive Attack's remix-heavy Singles 90/98 box or the Cocteau Twins' similar set of their 4AD material. Still other boxes literally collect every song an artist or band ever released commercially, fleshed out with live tracks, alternate takes, demos, etc.; bands I like that have received this "completist" approach include The Jam and Joy Division.
Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980 spelled the end of Joy Division and sparked the beginning of New Order, who in their typically unconventional fashion chose to release a box set to close out 2002. The project was long in the works, sparked by the Manchester band's late manager, Rob Gretton, who proposed the release of a box that would include all of their singles with remixes and b-sides. Daunted by the cost, New Order instead took a different, innovative direction and assigned a quartet of "curators" to compile their Retro collection. A pair of music writers, Miranda Sawyer and John McReady, took on the "Pop" (hits) and "Fan" (album tracks and b-sides) discs, respectively, while former Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering compiled "Club" (mostly 12" single mixes) and Primal Scream leader and onetime collaborator Bobby Gillespie helped the band sift through years worth of concert tapes to assemble "Live."
Retro sports a nifty concept, but suffers from a combination of lousy timing and mediocre execution. New Order have a history of more than 20 years as a group (closer to 15 if you subtract the lengthy hiatus they took between 1993's Republic and 2001's Get Ready, during which time each member released albums as part of a side project), but it's one that is still growing, with the band currently in the studio recording new material. (A cynic might suggest that this material, too, shall one day appear on another box set.) One could make the claim that the box is meant as an introduction to the band for new fans, but wouldn't a one- or two-disc set serve equally well for this purpose? For that matter, wouldn't one of the other New Order compilations, such as 1987's Substance or 1994's Best of, cover most of the territory? (Perhaps in recognition of this, the band has also recently issued International, a career-spanning single-disc best-of that has been released in some countries.)
More disappointing to this lifelong fan is the song selection. A glance at the back cover of Retro suggests that the band has been pretty generous, with 57 tracks totaling nearly five hours of music. But then I began to scrutinize the titles, and saw that "Crystal," "Regret," and "Fine Time" appear in studio, remix, and live forms (especially bizarre in the case of the heavily-synthesized last track, which features live vocals, bass, a moment or two of guitar, and machines aplenty even knowing that I was at the 1989 show where it was recorded at fails to make me want to hear this "live" track again). A number of other songs, including "Ceremony," "Procession," "Blue Monday," "Confusion," "Temptation," "Everything's Gone Green," and "Bizarre Love Triangle" appear in two versions, leaving the actual song count somewhere around 40 less than half the songs the band has released throughout its career.
The repetition is one thing, but the truly vexing aspect of this box is the dubiousness of the actual track selection. "Pop" would seem to be the easiest disc to assemble: stick to the big hits, mostly meaning the dance-oriented material that the band has traditionally favored for release as singles. And for the first 11 tracks on this disc, that's what you get. There are some vaguely leftfield exceptions: fan favorite "Ceremony" (their first-ever single, a natural progression from Joy Division, who performed it live in their last days), which may well have never received commercial airplay, and a pair of guitar-oriented gems in "Regret" and "Crystal." But "Pop" concludes with a trio of rhythmically dull clunkers that aren't singles, let alone well regarded songs: the boring "Brutal," from the soundtrack to "The Beach," best known as the first song the band released after reforming a few years back; the plodding Brit-pop of "Slow Jam"; and "Everyone Everywhere." I challenge anyone to sing the chorus, or even hum the melody, of any of these three! The compilers do earn kudos, however, for including the superior original versions of "Temptation" and "Confusion" rather than the 1987 remakes featured on Substance.
"Fan" represents another golden missed opportunity. The disc emphasizes the band's gloomier, low-key side, beginning with the haunting instrumental "Elegia" and the Ian Curtis-penned "In a Lonely Place." An early b-side, "Procession," is joined by fellow b-sides "Cries and Whispers" and "Lonesome Tonight" non-rarities that were all previously collected on the second disc of the CD version of Substance. All but one track on this disc dates back to the 1980s, most from that decade's first half. Highlights like the guitar jam "Sunrise," the hypnotic, Kraftwerk-inspired "Your Silent Face," and the melancholy "Leave Me Alone" sound even stronger in the context of some of the more dubious selections here, such as "Let's Go," "Broken Promise," and the worst track from 1985's Low-Life, the horribly dated-sounding "Sooner Than You Think." How can it be that great album tracks including "Age of Consent," "Love Vigilantes," "Primitive Notion," "Vanishing Point," "Special," and "Mr. Disco" are nowhere to be found in the first two and a half hours of this set, with only the first of these appearing in live form later? And how is it that the very highly regarded albums Low-Life (four songs), Technique (three), and Power, Corruption & Lies (three, or four if you include "Blue Monday") have fewer representatives on Retro than the mediocre-by-comparison Brotherhood (six)?
"Club" is what it is. While dancefloor-oriented mixes of guitar-based tunes like "Paradise," Regret," and "Crystal" retain little but snippets of the originals' vocals, a new mix of "Confusion" updates the song nicely. Add in Shep Pettibone's extended mix of "Bizarre Love Triangle," Pickering's own redo of England's 1990 World Cup theme "World in Motion" and Steve "Silk" Hurley's classic "Fine Time" remix, and the disc begins to live up to its goal. But then again, there are problems with this one too. Arthur Baker's brilliant technical rework of "1963" is actually less danceable than the original, while last year's "Here to Stay" the Chemical Brothers collaboration from the film 24 Hour Party People that almost plays as an homage to New Order's entire career makes its sole Retro appearance in a mediocre instrumental form.
The final disc, "Live," effectively charts New Order's progression as a live band, from the bashful, tentative early-'80s act found on a detached-sounding "Ceremony," the nervously rushed "Procession," and a somber "In a Lonely Place" to the confident, near-giddy, reformed and rejuvenated band heard here on the Get Ready standouts "Crystal," "Turn My Way" (AKA "the song that Billy Corgan sings on"), and a spectacularly fresh-sounding version of "Temptation" recorded last year." While "Fine Time" and the always-shite "World" could have been omitted in favor of more organic-sounding material, and the sound quality is hit and miss, "Live" somewhat ironically showcases New Order best of any of these four discs, and offers the only rare recordings to be found on this collection.
While I'm not optimistic that New Order have vaults full of unreleased songs, there are some winning b-sides that have never appeared on album that would have added immensely to the appeal of this package. The apocalyptic instrumental "Don't Do It," the whispered, whimsical "Behind Closed Doors," the bass workout "Sabotage," the robotic "Player in the League," and the heady, euphoric rush of "Such a Good Thing" all sit on my shelf, from which I can practically hear them wishing that room had been found to include them on Retro.
I could go on nitpicking, but for your benefit and to keep my own blood pressure under control I won't. In fact, there are some things this package gets right, especially the packaging the booklet, though fairly short on text (oddly, the band comments on only 20 or so of Retro's songs), does showcase great photos of the band members and a few associates throughout the years, something you won't find on any of their albums save for Low-Life. And lest we forget, this still is the music of New Order, nicely remastered, and in copious quantities.
New Order have a tremendous legacy, for their pioneering mixture of traditional rock instruments with electronics, for their alternating thematic continuation of and complete disavowal of their previous work as Joy Division, and the sheer volume of fabulous rock and dance songs that they've crafted. Unfortunately, Retro fails to adequately convey the band's greatness even as it lifts 50 bucks or more from the wallet.
Note: Select copies of Retro also include a nine-track bonus disc of seemingly randomly chosen, fairly non-consequential material, the most interesting bits of which may be the original, unedited 17-minute version of "Elegia," the live-in-the-studio version of "Perfect Kiss" featured in New Order's outstanding Jonathan Demme-directed film/video, the above-mentioned "Such a Good Thing," and a live version of the Joy Division classic "Transmission."