Wednesday, May 5, 2021

New Order’s Treaty on War – Fantin, and a Sad Country Song

The 80s New Order catalog is sublime. From Movement's transition away from Ian Curtis in 1981 to Technique in 1989 (and even including 1993's Republic), the band was pure 80s with timeless style. In 1983, New Order's sublime Power, Corruption and Lies included my No. 1 track "Leave Me Alone" and, for those of us who bought the cassette (which is worth a fortune, BTW), "Blue Monday."

Getting socially conscious, though, the album offered "We All Stand," an eerie anti-war/violence tome that sends shivers down one’s spine. Its construct is one of anticipation and a uniquely perceptive take on ground combat that includes ambiguity of a transcendent nature: At the front line is an unknown enemy soldier with the same “three miles to go” before their confrontation, and presumedly, one will kill the other:

Three miles to go
Three miles to go
At the end of the road
There's a soldier waiting for me

The texture of the instrumentation and the anxious yet unsuspecting mood of the unknown soldier is as dramatic as an introspective film. The suspense is heightened by Stephen Morris's penetrating percussion underpinning Peter Hook's bassline as Gillian and Sumner weave their brooding melodies.

In 1985, the band would pick up the war theme on the LP Low Life with the stand-out single "Love Vigilantes." While the track's subtlety is solidly anti-war, what's created instead is a country song in spirit, a story of ghostlike ambiance in which a wife receives a government letter stating that her husband has been killed in the war, only for the husband to appear at the door. Some interpret this as a mistake on the part of the letter, others instead, more accurately, interpret that the narrator is there only in spirit and has not yet recognized his own death. It's a very different approach for New Order who nixed the electronica for a more straightforward rock song that features the melodica played by Sumner, Hook's ever-present bass, and a rhythm guitar. Sumner describes the track as a "very country tragedy." Both songs make a convincing point in very different ways; each extolls NO’s ability to cut through the expectations.

The cover art for PC&L is by Peter Saville from a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour from the late 19th century. Fantin studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue as if it were a human face. In Fantin’s flowers, the drawing is large and beautiful, sure and incisive; it is an individual flower and not simply one of a type. Add to that Saville’s graphics sensibility and you have one of the most iconic LP covers of the 80s.

Initially, Saville, figured he needed the portrait of a dark and renaissance-styled prince, but only because he was watching The Borgias at the time. Instead, at the National Gallery in London, he found a postcard featuring the painting "A Basket of Roses"

by Fantin-Latour. His girlfriend (name unknown) joked that he should use this as his cover. The National Gallery, however, refused to let Factory Records use it. Tony Wilson, head of Factory, went to the gallery director and had a memorable talk in which the gallery made an exception and allowed Factory Records the painting. Peter Saville put his code on the top corner and the iconic cover was complete.

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