Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Temptation" by New Order (1982)

At this point in this project, I’m planning on not duplicating artists. Sooner or later I’ll have to get over that – I mean, when it comes to sacred cows like Bob Dylan or the Beatles, you can’t just throw in one song as representative of them and be done with it. Certainly each of them have quite a few songs worthy of being considered among the ‘best ever’.

I mention those two ‘golden-age’ performers, but I haven’t gotten around to either of them yet. As strange as it may seem, at this point the artist I’ve had the hardest time narrowing down to a single song has been New Order.

Their modish design ethic on a chic boutique indie back in the 80s may have obscured the point, but New Order were shockingly consistent. Listening to their singles collection “Substance” reveals not a single song that couldn’t by rights appear here on this list. Their approach was so assured that they were pretty much guaranteed of quality each time out.

They’re an interesting band, New Order. The path they took from generic punk on “Warsaw” (recorded with Ian Curtis as Joy Division) to guitarless rave on “Fine Time” in less than ten years might not seem all that plausible except that each step of that journey was a completely logical product of the previous step. Their trajectory would have been chess-like methodical if it weren’t so plainly the result of blind flying. What made New Order’s halting journey to the dancefloor believable was the fact that, even when surrounded by Balearic beats and building up an ecstatic trance, they still seemed like outsiders, gazing at their shoes and vaguely embarrassed by it all. As a wallflower in need of deliberate coaxing myself, I could see in New Order kindred spirits on the dance floor.

Through it all, the main constant in Joy Division and New Order has always been Peter Hook. It is his bass playing that makes a New Order song, and whatever else it sounds like, if he is on bass, it’s genuine. “Temptation” has great lead bass lines, but what it also has is both melodic guitars and punchy drums. In other words, it’s an intermediate step in their journey, and being the single coming immediately before the iconic “Blue Monday” is the last time that they were truly stumbling in the dark, holding onto Joy Division’s residual audience without truly finding a new one of their own. They were soon to be heroes, but weren’t yet.

Which is remarkable, because Bernard Sumner’s amazing lead vocals (who says this man can’t sing?) on wonderfully enigmatic lyrics (who says this man can’t write?) pull you in, but the amazing, glorious never-ending mess of a groove that the band concocts behind him is truly what makes it worthwhile. At 7:00, it’s quite short by New Order single standards, but it’s not merely a generic dance-remix extension. It’s seven minutes long because it has seven minutes’ worth of things to say – disjointed things that might not have coalesced, but somehow do. Chorus? Verse? Bridge? Doesn’t matter. I recently read a comparison between New Order’s song structures and Pink Floyd’s. After initially scoffing, I thought about it, and there is some truth to it. Both of them write epics. But Pink Floyd’s epics don’t inspire careless abandon on the dancefloor. And are that much there worse for it.
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