Like someone writing a personal ad designed to elicit a plethora of responses by casting as wide a net as possible ("I love a fancy night on the town, and staying in to watch videos!"), New Order are defined by their contradictions. Birthed a quarter century ago in the wake of a suicide, they quickly came to embrace a sparkling pop style while keeping a touch of darkness in reserve, ready to deploy at a moment's notice. Inspired by disco, the early '80s hip-hop scene and Kraftwerk, they use synthesizers to write dance music for people who can't dance. True to their punk roots, they employ rudimentary guitar technique to make rock songs that are far more pop than rock. Their bass player can't keep time or groove in the pocket to save his life, but he has one of the most distinctive styles around. And while their sole album of the 1990s is downright unworthy of the New Order name, they've come back strong in the new millennium with 2001's Get Ready and their latest, Waiting for the Sirens' Call.
Initial reports that this would be a mechanically produced album were offset
by news that the band was working on a diverse set of tunes with a grab bag of
producers including Britpop vets Stephen Street and John Leckie, with the latter
proving to be the case. Waiting for the Sirens' Call finds the band sticking
to its signature sound, except when it doesn't. All the usual rules are in play:
Bernard Sumner's lyrics are alternately beautiful and belligerent; guitars chime
grind; Stephen Morris' steady timekeeping and crafty drum programming blur the
line between the Rolands and the real drums; and they save the album's oddest
song for last. Or maybe this is the album where they break all the rules by including
their first-ever title track, adding guitar solos all about (likely the influence
of new guitarist Phil Cunningham, replacing Gillian Gilbert), throwing around
sentence-length song titles, and bringing in someone half their age (Scissor
Sister Ana Matronic) to perform a duet.
With so many new bands emulating elements of New Order's sound, it's heartening to know that the real deal is out there as a fully functioning unit, seemingly as happy to be together as they've ever been, youthful anger tempered by middle-aged maturity. And for the most part, New Order are functioning on all cylinders on Waiting for the Sirens' Call, a very strong albeit front-loaded album.
Two of the three opening tracks, "Who's Joe" and the title song, are high-quality
fare. As they did on Get Ready, New Order open this album with a bit of
quiet noodling, suggesting an aging runner stretching out and flexing a bit before
a race. The electropop on "Joe" is top-notch, a mid-tempo groove that showcases
the band's lush guitars and keyboards to great effect, setting the stage for "Waiting
for the Sirens' Call," which slows things down a smidge but scales even greater
heights with its gentle guitar leads and pillowy bed of synths. The tracks bookend
the straining, so-so "Hey Now What You Doing," which employs an approach similar
to its neighbors, to lesser effect.
The album hits its peak a third of the way in with lead single "Krafty," which absolutely lives up to its name. The song is executed in ace fashion, Hooky's bass riff the only non-programmed element on the opening verses, which thud their way through with canned percussion and sequenced bits and a half-engaged Sumner sounding mildly robotic before the song comes to life, Morris kicking in with a slightly stuttering bit of live drums. A wall of sprightly guitar and backing vocals joins the newly expressive singer on the chorus, setting up a neat dichotomy between machine and man that runs through the remainder of the track, neatly evoking past hits like "Blue Monday" and "Regret" to brilliant effect.
That "Krafty" leads into the mildly embarrassing reggae groove of "I Told You So" adds to the disc's charm, the band making its once-per-decade attempt to move from the dance floor into the dancehall. It's all a bit of a mixed bag from there. The outdated rhythms on "Morning Night and Day" disappoint, but the track is saved by Sumner's impassioned vocals and clamoring guitars. "Dracula's Castle" opens with some interesting, glitchy electronic sounds before settling into something of a rut, while the ultra-current, very robotic "Jetstream" is grounded by its lack of personality, making one wish that instead of Ms. Matronic, the other Scissor Sisters vocalist, Jake Shears, were guesting with his monstrous falsetto. The penultimate track, "Turn," reminds us again just how pretty a way New Order have with guitars, bass and drums, bringing autumnal chills on the verses and summer thrills on the choruses. Closing things out is the garage-rock craziness of "Working Overtime," which makes clear that as much as New Order may admire the Stooges, they shouldn't go aping them. Still, it's harmless fun, even if you wish they'd included it as a hidden track (or put it out as a b-side) instead of making it a part of the main program.
While they're sometimes slagged as past their prime or more inspirational than inspiring at this point, New Order continue to make exciting music. While Waiting for the Sirens' Call falls short of the band's best work (which can be found on 1983's Power, Corruption and Lies, 1985's Low-Life, and 1989's Technique, as well as the Substance compilation), this is leagues above the embarrassments that a lot of acts produce 25 years in. We should all age so well.