Three decades ago this week, New Order released their third album Low-Life. By this point, they had thoroughly thrown off the shackles of their past, and seemed pretty comfortable with being New Order. Blue Monday was already the best selling 12″ single of all time, and they could do pretty much whatever they liked.
Which might explain the relatively limited failings of Low-Life. It is, as we will see, for the most part a fantastic album, but it’s also OK to see it without rose-tinted glasses. The opening track Love Vigilantes, for instance, has a lot going for it: it’s reasonably catchy; it has unusually good lyrics. In fact, there shouldn’t really be anything wrong with it – maybe it’s just a bit too jarring at the start of an album, but it doesn’t quite work for me.
The Perfect Kiss is next, starting in extremely promising form, although hasn’t aged quite as well as some of their other tracks. Unfortunately Bernard Sumner‘s vocal delivery doesn’t quite seem to fit initially, and by the time you’ve got the hang of that, you’re a couple of minutes in. Just in time to hear him rhyme “strange,” with “deranged.” It’s a good song, certainly, but in spite of the glorious frog samples in the middle section, it’s tempting to wonder if they couldn’t have done a little bit better.
It’s with This Time of Night that you really hear what they’re capable of. It’s a bit more subdued, which might be part of the reason why it works better – New Order have always seemed to have an inherent melancholy in their sound, which should surely be embraced rather than ignored. The lyrics are still a bit iffy, but it’s at this point that you realise that to focus too much on Sumner’s lyrics is to miss the point slightly.
Sunrise is brilliant too, although, rightly or wrongly, it may not be one that you remember for long after listening to the album, and that’s the end of the first half of the album already.
Side B opens with the legendary instrumental Elegia, which is truly brilliant, although maybe not something you’ll be humming in the shower. It moves on to Sooner Than You Think, which while not exactly catchy is another extremely good example of what New Order were doing in the mid-1980s.
Then comes Sub-Culture, which is entirely brilliant. By this point you’re ready to accept any failings you might have spotted before, and you can sit back and enjoy the music as it was intended. It’s true that the album version doesn’t quite have the punch of the single version, but it’s still pretty good.
Finally Face Up starts off pretty promisingly, but then turns into a slightly crazy party piece, and that’s just before the vocal starts. It’s a degree of schizophrenia which makes it something of a failure unfortunately. It has plenty of good bits, but combined into a single song, it doesn’t quite work.
So Low-Life is great, but it’s a flawed work of genius, reflecting the fact that it was human beings who made it. With that in mind, it’s difficult not to be rather fond of it.
The double disc collector’s edition of Low-Life is still available, although there were a lot of complaints about the sound quality on the reissue series, so tread with caution.