New Order - Get Ready
© 2001 Reprise Records

Peter Buck of R.E.M. likes to tell a story about a teen stopping him backstage after a show in the Life's Rich Pageant tour, to say "Hey, great first album, man." Buck just smiled and said, "Thanks."

One can imagine the same reaction to New Order's October 2001 release "Get Ready": New Order has not produced an album in eight years, enough to effectively never have appeared on the radar screen of anyone under 25. After 1989's "Technique", a brash techno/disco dance-party-in-Ibiza compilation, they followed with "Republic" in 1993, which sounded like the band's death knell. It was late, had only a single memorable track ("Regret"), its sales flagged, and the band was already rumored to be suffering internal differences. New Order sounded like a weak parody of itself, and fans let out a collective sigh and pronounced the band dead. There was never any formal breakup announcement, but members drifted into other projects. But today -- almost out of nowhere -- they're back. And the message is: get ready.

And with good reason -- these nearly 40-year-olds have produced an album with as much vitality and anger as any band just out of the garage:

We're like crystal, we break easy
I'm a poor man if you leave me
I'm applauded then forgotten
It was summer, now it's autumn

So begins "Crystal", the opening track. Bernard Sumner, not known for his lyrical subtlety to begin with, is not leaving anything to chance: we're back, we're older (summer, autumn), and we're not going to be dismissed quietly. The message is so underlined, in fact, that one has to conclude that there is a serious infusion of irony going on here, and not merely Bernard's typical direct, angsty confessional style (e.g. "What do I get out of this / I always try, I always miss").

In fact, "Crystal" is simply astonishing: it begins gently and contemplatively with a female vocal solo but quickly works its way into a kind of angry, breathy exhuberance. Peter Hook's famously broad, moaning basslines only make their appearance between stanzas, replaced by a more traditional bass support for a heavy, distorted guitar and drum line. Perhaps symbolically, the song lulls into what seems a soft piano ending around the fifth minute, and then bursts back to life again.

Even more unusual is the appearance of Billy Corgan's voice and guitar in "Turn My Way", a song that opens so much like a Smashing Pumpkins tune that you'll think you accidentally left your CD changer on shuffle play. Corgan's voice quickly drops into a duet next to Bernard's, and the song becomes a more familiar Hook/Sumner riff. A few critics have harped on both Sumner's habit of going for the "easy rhyme" and for the lyrics' lusting for a youthful state that the band has obviously passed: "I don't want to be like other people are / Don't want to own a key, don't want to wash my car". Yet this is to misunderstand what New Order has always been about when they are at their best: the first-person emotional experience set to music, the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings (to borrow an idea from Wordsworth). In this sense "Get Ready" is not a successor to "Technique" but to "Low-life" and "Brotherhood".

The rest of the album is all over the map musically, from the unabashedly rock-like "60 Miles an Hour", "Slow Jam" and "Rock the Shack" (which features Bobbie Gillespie from Primal Scream, and plays more like a Rolling Stones tune than anything else) to the more familiar bass-driven electronica in "Someone Like You" and "Close Range" to the dreamy, ethereal "Vicious Streak". The album closes with a lovely bittersweet acoustic track called "Run Wild", which just when you've pegged it (think "Love Vigilantes" from "Low-life") swells into big electronic modulations in a minor key, and then an ironic chorus: "Good times around the corner".

The album's cover: The young child staring out at the viewer on U2's "War" stands out as one of the more seminal, haunting album covers of the 1980s. The cover of "Get Ready" is that cover brought forward to 2001: a youngish woman in a brown monochrome looking right at the viewer, a handheld video camera held to one eye, and a red stripe (a video level line?) across the bottom third. In a sense she could be the child from "War" grown up and grown older the way the band has grown older in the last two decades. The difference is the self-referentiality. This cover is the new New Order view of the world: it's us, all grown up now, watching them, putting them back in the spotlight. From "Primitive Notion":

I'm doing my best to confound you
Your behavior is so volatile
Not even a zoo would impound you
Don't look at me with your critical smile
Well I've been driving in the wrong gear
It's been a long and lonely ride
It's been winter for a whole year
But you could help me if you tried

Or perhaps it's them watching us. We're meant to chew on the ambiguity as we evaluate the album. New Order is not just back under the spotlight, they're also not to be taken at face value anymore. Get ready.

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