The band's third album is both a tribute and an exorcism.
Released almost on the fifth anniversary of Ian Curtis's death, for much of the specialized press, Low-life is the breaking point at which the band completed their graduation from post-punk survivors to indie dance-rock stars.
Personally, I disagree with any analysis that imposes artificial boundaries on the evolution of the sound of these Manchester musicians, including the Joy Division / New Order separation is, in my view, more psychological than sonic. In my opinion, the differences from Unknown Pleasures to Closer, to Movement, to Power Corruption and Lies, to Low-life, to Brotherhood, to Technique, to Republic show a band in constant evolution and without fear of taking chances and innovating.
I am not minimizing the effect of Ian Curtis' loss had on the band, of course it was huge, but the influence of Ian Curtis was embedded in the soul of the other members and would be felt in subsequent releases. As such, Low-life, ultimately, just shows that the weight of Joy Division’s name and the sadness of Ian Curtis' loss has finally been exorcised.
Built upon the exquisite foundations of the previous album (Power Corruption and Lies), Low-life shows a band further away from past ghosts and more focused on a new path, a path from which we had a glimpse of, two years earlier, with 'Blue Monday'. Tracks like 'The Perfect Kiss' and 'Sub-culture', with synthesized basses and drums, a lot of electronic percussions and incredible synth arpeggios, are a clear evolution in the path suggested by the megahit.
The album opens with 'Love Vigilants', a song that breaks away from the usual New Order style in many ways. Inspired by American folk music, 'Love Vigilants' is decidedly pop, with the typical hooks of songs designed to please the audience. The lyrics, despite the irreverent storytelling format, is basically a tragedy, telling the story of a soldier who returns from the war only to discover that his wife had received a telegram informing her of his death in combat. According to the vocalist, the lyrics are open to the listener's interpretation, the soldier may in fact have died and returned as a ghost, or the telegram was an error, but the fact is, as he returns, alive or as a spirit, he faces the tragedy of finding his wife dead, with the telegram in hand, having committed suicide.
The second track, 'The Perfect Kiss', shows another concession in relation to the past: this would be the first single released from an album. Until then, all New Order and Joy Division singles were songs that were non-album singles. The album version is an edited version, running only 4:48 versus the original, released on the 12-inch single, which runs 8:46 minutes. This version cuts out the last verse and most of the fantastic instrumental part. The full version would later appear in Collector's Edition released in 2008. The video, directed by none other than Jonathan Demme, an Oscar winner for Silence of the Lambs, features the band playing live music in the studio (a 9:29 version). According to Tony Wilson, Factory Records boss, Demme imagined a more dynamic video, planning to put several cameras filming Stephen Morris, the drummer of the band, just to be dismayed by the fact that the drums were programmed.
'At This Time of Night' goes further in technoland, with the synth bass locked together with the drums, creating an almost martial rhythm. At a concert in Tokyo, filmed at the time of the album's release, Barney presents the song as 'Pumped full of drugs” (a title that would later be used in the video release of the same show). This alternative title could be a hint to the real meaning of the lyrics: the bipolar relationship with drugs, either legal or illegal, which on the one hand could facilitate coping with physical or psychological pain, but, on the other hand, could alienate us and deprive us of real contact with reality and loved ones.
If 'At This Time of Night' is dark, 'Sunrise' is almost claustrophobic. The introduction, with a dense keyboard, followed by Hook's impressive bass riff, that guides almost the whole song (being modified only in the end by another more desperate one), shows what it could have been if New Order had followed Closer's path. Heavy drums and distressed vocals make this track a perfect example of darkwave. The lyrics generate several interpretations, the simplest, an outburst of a Christian who lost his faith (“Your name might be God but you don't say that much to me”), would underestimate the band's lyrical capacity. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, but if Low-life is Joy Division's exorcism, 'Sunrise' would be a catharsis of anger and frustration for Ian (the “God” in the song lyrics) having abandoned them (“As we spend our days together, nothing could go wrong / No one told the truth about it because it was so strong ”), a final cry of a band that struggled through loss and pain, the carried the weight of an unfair comparison with an idealized god, to finally find the affirmation and the self-respect they deserve.
Each medium has its advantages and disadvantages, at the time of Low-life’s release, the CD still represented little in music sales and, whether on vinyl or on tape, it was necessary for the listener to get up and literally change sides. This generated a break in continuity that could be detrimental in certain cases, where there was a need to create a continuum, as in classical music, but it could lead to strategic decisions to reset the ambiance and the feeling of the listener.
This strategy was well used in Low-life, while side A, starting with a pop song to grow in rhythm and becoming dark in feeling, ending with a cry of anger we get a break to reset as side B restarts with light and hope.
If the band vented their anger on 'Sunrise', 'Elegia' on the other hand was composed, literally, as an elegy for Ian Curtis. The instrumental track follows an almost erudite composition style, with a 12/8 time signature, something completely non-standard in pop music, the composition sometimes feels like an ethereal waltz, reflexively and spiritually at peace. In a manner words could never be as honest, the track is perhaps the way to say that, despite everything that happened, and because of everything that happened, Ian, we love and admire you.
The track, which was recorded practically live, exists in two versions, one edited with a running time of five minutes, released on the album, and the full version, without edits or adjustments, running 17:29 long. The unedited version was released 17 years later in the Retro box. Just like the full version of 'The Perfect Kiss', the full version of 'Elegia' is available in the Collector's Edition of Low-life.
'Sonner Than You Think', the second of the album's three pop songs, has standard rock band instrumentation, showing that New Order could very well shine as indie stars like its contemporaries The Smith, Psychedelic Furs and others. Maybe, again, I'm reading to much between the lines, but the lyrics, with phrases like “Well we had a party in our hotel last night / It ended up in an awful fight / My friend left me and my heart too / I hope I don't end up like you” could be indicative of the growing friction between Barney and Peter.
'Sub-culture' was the second single taken from the album, but the release was a controversial remix by John Robbie. Peter Saville, responsible for the art of all New Order and Joy Division releases, simply refused to design a sleeve for the single, stating that the track's remix was unworthy of its talents. The failure of the remix, which was intended to make the song club-friendly, is even more evident by the fact that London clubs preferred to play the original version than the “dance” version.
The song may have been unfairly stigmatized, by the remix, as the original is a pulsating track, showing, once more, the potential of combining pre-programmed bass synthesizers and drum machines with Peter's incredible bass riffs and Gillian and Stephen’s keyboards.
'Face Up', the third pop song on the album, is a reflection on relationships that are, or may become, emotionally abusive, or even resentments caused by the wear and tear of time (“Oh, how I cannot bear the thought of you” ”), reverberation in the soul of many fans who identified with the story. But if the positioning of “Elegia” seems like a strategic decision to change the mood between side A and side B, the choice of a “simple” pop song to close the album, especially after “Sub-culture” seems, unfortunately, to be a tremendous mistake, generating an anticlimax that leaves the listener, at the end of the album, craving for more.
And perhaps this is the only defect of Low-life, we crave for more.
Peter Saville has always taken the creation of Factory's graphic designs to artistic levels. His refusal to bow to commercial standards, in addition to delaying the release of several of the label's records, making they wait for him to finalize the art, created extreme situations such as a promotional, poster that was ready only after the event happened and a single from the most successful band of the label to be released without a proper sleeve.
But there is no denying that conceptually his designs are fantastic. For Low-life the concept was to focus on the people behind the art, but not the band. For the first and only time, photos of the band members, individualized and distorted, appear on the cover. Escaping the pre-established static art pattern, the album cover was interchangeable: On a semi-transparent cover with the band name on the front and information about the album on the back, there were four individual photos of the band members. These photos could be reconfigured to the fan's taste, deciding which photo would be on the cover, on the back cover and which ones would stay inside. Unfortunately, outside the United Kingdom, few record companies, seeking to reduce costs, followed the original art, preferring to make a common cover, with static art.
Released in 2008, the Collector's Edition expands the experience with other songs composed at the same time, but released on other albums, remixes and out-takes:
"The Perfect Kiss" (12 ″ version) 8:49: Full version of the song originally released on the 12-inch single. First time available in digital form, since the CD version of Substance 1987 was slightly edited (8:02).
"Sub-culture" (John Robie remix) 7:27: Controversial remix of the track.
"Shellshock" (Substance edit) 6:28.
"Shame of the Nation" (12 ″ version) 7:55
"Elegia" (full version) 17:29: Originally available only on the extra disc (disc 5) of the Retro boxset.
"Let's Go" 3:44: Version of the soundtrack for the movie Salvation !, different from the version available in the Best of New Order collection
"Salvation Theme" 2:18: Salvation movie theme!
"Dub Vulture" 7:57: Instrumental version of the controversial Sub-culture remix.
The Perfect Kiss video captures the band playing the song live in a studio and was directed by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme.
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