Monday, June 4, 2018

Low Life

Low Life was the point when New Order became New Order in it's own right, no longer the ruins of Joy Division. A mixed blessing actually, and probably the spot where their legacy gets so damned confused in the first place. Between Power, Corruption and Lies and this LP NO dropped a couple singles that made titanic waves in the nascent British club scene and even coerced their way into the clubs of New York and Los Angeles. For Low Life, the foursome fails to hybridize that post-punk/electronic vibe as brilliantly as on the earlier albums, yet they craft an album that allows the eclecticism of the repertoire to mingle and coexist. For the first LPs it was difficult to distinguish the difference between Bernard Sumner and Ian Curtis. There was nothing forced in the mimicry, simply a lack of disassociation that worked in the same way that Trick of the Tail was the perfect follow-up to Peter Gabriel's Genesis. Movement was definitively a New Order Album but the Joy Division overtones were overwhelming. PC&L was the next step in the evolution (and an LP I go back to more readily), but Low Life was a leap into wicked full-on 80s synth pop chock full of programming, drum machines and synths while Hook commandeered the melody with that incredible bass and Sumner wrecked shit on guitar. New Order could have just as easily been a crazy mess. 

Low Life opens with the folksy story of a Vietnam vet returning home to find his wife dead on the floor. She's clutching a telegram informing her of the soldier's death. allmusic described the tune as a campfire singalong, not unlike Harry Chapin's "Taxi" or "Phantom 409." "Love Vigilantes" was a huge success on American alternative radio and its popularity overshadowed just how distant this song was from Joy Division, a straight on rock song that almost doesn't fit into the repertoire on either end. It's the LP's second track, though, that has remained a staple on my playlist for the past thirty years, if not this version: "The Perfect Kiss" was released simultaneously as a 12" single that is my choice for single of singles (also available on the compilation Substance). The track's stressed rhythmic undercurrent and flawless dance beat are at the mercy of endless counterpoint. "The Perfect Kiss" would make JS Bach's head spin. The 12" made it to No. 5 on the US dance track list and ranks as Stereogum's No. 1 NO single. The lyrics are deceiving as well and point out how clever New Order have always been in terms of poignant electronica: "My friend he took his final breath./ Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death." What masquerades as a love song ("We believe in the land of love") quickly becomes a requiem, somehow simultaneously remaining one of the best dance tracks of the 80s. 

There are some who would insist that it takes until Brotherhood for the band to start sounding indie again. I'll buy that. If anything Low Life is too perfect, too tight; therein lies its flaw: yeah, too perfect.