Music Complete is New Order’s best album in more than 20 years, an accomplishment that sounds more impressive than it actually is: The legendary British band’s post-1993 output has been so sporadic that it seemed at times that New Order was actually gone for good. Since 1993’s Republic, there have been just two studio albums, 2001’s Get Ready and 2005’s Waiting For The Sirens’ Call, both decent but hardly essential, and neither in the same league with the band’s genre-defining (and frequently genre-defying) ’80s work.
And while Music Complete doesn’t entirely qualify as a return to that rare form—that’d be a small miracle at this point—it does seem to have found some path back to what made New Order great in the first place. Where Get Ready and Sirens had a decent track or two, each felt like they were going through the motions—as if the members of New Order had joined a band that sounded like New Order, but didn’t get it exactly right. (And the lyrics, especially on Sirens, seemed particularly tossed-off.) Maybe the title of Music Complete offers a nod to its sound, which at least attempts to synthesize most of the band’s musical personalities from over the years, from house-influenced techno-pop to melancholy indie-rock to those magical moments that fuse those two sides perfectly and singularly.
Diehards will decry the missing sound of Peter Hook’s bass guitar, a key element to New Order’s sound, which is absent here for the first time in the band’s history. (He left acrimoniously in 2007, and is surely spinning a copy of Music Complete this week and determining how much it would have been improved with him on it.) But as vital as Hook has historically been, Music doesn’t suffer terribly from his absence: The songs here are so much stronger than on the last two albums that the tradeoff, such as it is, seems worthwhile. It’s the band’s most consistently winning set of compositions since 1989’s Technique, and it—like that album—tips the rock/electronic balance slightly in favor of the latter.
“Restless” sounds like classic New Order, following the formula built up to and locked in on 1993’s “Regret.” It’s a well they’ve gone back to over the years, to varying degrees of success, but it works here. “Academic” looks a bit further into the past, with a nod to 1986’s Brotherhood in its sound and arrangement; same goes for “Nothing But A Fool.” But the balance of Music Complete leans heavier on electronic beats, frequently for the better: “Singularity” recalls the naïve synth sound of “Temptation,” where “Plastic” brings New Order more in line with contemporary electronic music.
And then there are the weird outliers, most notably “Stray Dog,” in which Bernard Sumner cedes vocal duties to Iggy Pop, who growl-speaks his way through the entire song, and “Tutti Frutti,” which borrows La Roux’s Elly Jackson for the chorus and brings back the weird vocal affect from 1989’s “Fine Time.” Though neither are canon-worthy, they do signal a band that’s more invested and interested than it has been in basically two decades. Though it’s been said about each of their few-and-far-between albums, it’s actually safe to call Music Complete a comeback.