When Music Complete was announced earlier this year my initial thought was, “I hope it’s their Electric”. Electric, the last album released by Pet Shop Boys, was their best record in 20 years (since Very). It was a brilliant set of songs paired with production that complemented the music and made them sound relevant again. If Pet Shop Boys pulled that off, there’s no reason why Music Complete should not be New Order’s best album since Technique. It felt like a positive sign when New Order signed to Mute — it’s a natural fit since the label is also home to Erasure and Depeche Mode.
The lead singles,‘Regret’ and ‘Crystal’, on 1993’s Republic and 2001’s Get Ready were commonly considered the best songs on those albums. On Music Complete, New Order have taken the opposite approach. Music Complete’s first single, ‘Restless’, is New Order on autopilot musically and lyrically. It’s not a bad song, but ‘Turn’ from Waiting For The Siren’s Call did it better. Bernard’s aged voice is the most noticeable thing about Restless, and some of the other songs, on Music Complete. They made a brave decision not to use auto-tune, and it takes some getting used to.
If New Order had wanted to lead this record with the strongest track, they could have put out the Italo disco inspired ‘Tutti Frutti’. It sounds like the most fun they’ve had on record since ‘Fine Time’ (even bringing back the same deep voice effect) and it has an irresistible use of house piano, a bouncing bassline, and 70’s disco strings.
Disco influences come up a lot on Music Complete. ‘Plastic’ has the Moroder bassline, ‘People On The High Line’ has Chic guitars, and on ‘Unlearn This Hatred’ Bernard quotes Dee D Jackson’s classic disco song ‘Automatic Lover’. The disco sounds on Music Complete suggest they’ve gone back to some of the records that inspired them when they took a more electronic turn from ‘Temptation’ onwards.
‘Singularity’ was one of the earliest songs written for Music Complete. The intro is the most New Order have sounded like Joy Division since Movement. It soon shifts into a throbbing electronic track. It balances the rock and dance sides of New Order perfectly, and it’s the most vital they’ve sounded in a long time. It’s one of the best songs here. ‘Plastic’ is almost as strong. It starts out sounding suspiciously like ‘Axis’ by Pet Shop Boys (which sounded suspiciously like ‘Menergy’ by Patrick Cowley). It’s the sound of New Order trying to get themselves back on the dance floor. ‘Unlearn This Hatred’ is another dance-based song and it boasts one of the best choruses on the record.
‘Nothing But A Fool’ is the most successful of the guitar-based songs on Music Complete and provides its most heartwarming moment. It begins as a darker sounding song that is closer to the rockier sound of Get Ready. The mood changes drastically in the chorus with Bernard singing, “If you can hold her in your hands, if you can feel her in your heart, don’t ever let her run away, don’t ever let her drift away”. The more that Gillian’s backing vocals come in (and eventually take over), it reveals itself to be an incredibly beautiful song. Gillian’s vocals could have been used more on this record.
The number of contributors listed for Music Complete felt like a warning sign that they might be trying too hard. Elly Jackson appears on three tracks, and for someone with such a distinctive voice, she really doesn’t stand out — on ‘Plastic’ it could be anyone singing the backing vocals. Iggy Pop’s presence on ‘Stray Dog’ made me fear another ‘Rock The Shack’ style disaster, but it’s more successful than that. Iggy could almost be reprising his role from Death In Vegas’ ‘Aisha’. It’s easily Music Complete’s weakest moment. Musically, it’s good to hear New Order doing a brooding krautrock-inspired song, but it kills the mood and outstays its welcome, especially after the feel good pop of ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘People On The High Line’.
The final cameo is Brandon Flowers, who brings some of the joy from his excellent recent solo album to closer, ‘Superheated’. New Order have a history of great closing songs (‘Dream Attack’, ‘Run Wild’, ‘Leave Me Alone’) and this is no different. Lyrically ‘Superheated’ is a breakup song with the darkest lyrics on Music Complete. Bernard sings, “Sometimes I wake up as angry as hell, I feel deserted, I feel unwell”, which goes against the uplifting music (it almost feels like a victory lap). You can almost see them high fiving in the studio as the harps and bells play. The song ends with Brandon repeating, “it’s over” — these are the last lyrics on the album. He could be singing about the album, their relationship with Peter Hook, or even about the band themselves. This would be a fine record to end on if that was the case.
Music Complete is not flawless like Pet Shop Boys’ Electric, nevertheless this is a triumph for New Order and could be their best album since Technique (I like Republic a lot more than most). Losing a key member of their group could have harmed them, but the other members have stepped up. Gillian’s return has brought electronic influences, and Music Complete is all the better for it. Unlike the uneven Waiting For The Siren’s Call, the electronic songs aren’t forced and are the strongest songs on this record. There have been times on their last few records when they didn’t sound inspired, but this one is different — apart from ‘Restless’ nothing comes across as a rehash. New Order have played to their strengths whilst competing with younger bands they’ve influenced (Cut Copy, The Juan Maclean, Hot Chip). I can’t see Music Complete being anyone’s favourite New Order record, but it’s a worthy addition to their incredible back catalogue.