New Order have released three albums in the past twenty years ("Lost Sirens" doesn't count). Since breaking up for all intents and purposed circa 1994, their second act takes up more than half of their career, time-wise. That's incredible to think about, especially considering how prolific they were before that.
What if "Get Ready", "Waiting For the Sirens Call", and "Music Complete" had been the first three albums of some other band's career and had been released over the past five or six years? Their albums would receive good, but not great reviews from the usual indie publications. The attention of the ex-LCD Soundsystem demographic would ensure they'd sell out 1500-2000 person venues each time they toured through major cities in the northeast and the large southern US college towns. Critics would note that any song on any of their albums could be swapped with virtually any song on another one of their albums, and you'd scarcely notice the difference. They'd never be called "daring" or "adventurous" because of their insistence on sticking to the formula, but even casual fans would admit that it was nice to know exactly what they're getting with each new album. They'd be getting remixed by the likes of Hot Chip (hmmm ... this is one point where the alternate universe band intersects with the real life New Order). They'd very likely have plateaued in popularity by their third album, but there are plenty of things worse than building a long term career off of modest but profitable world tours every two years. Their fourth album might even debut in the top 20 of the Billboard 200.
However, tack those three albums onto the career of a band that hasn't had anything to prove since the 80's and everything is different. Now it's the story of a band improbably adding to an already incomparable legacy, making quality new music long after they by all rights should have been finished as a creative force. With each successive long hiatus, the idea that they could return and release anything passable became more and more preposterous, if not laughable. Band members reconvened, quit, and rejoined, collaborators both strange and wonderful came and went, they appeared to be shifting gears and becoming an touring jukebox churning out "Blue Monday" until the end of time, only to split up or find their way into the studio again depending on mysterious circumstances that we will never completely understand. Let's face it, at any point during the past twenty years, and most certainly since their big comeback gig at Reading '98, they could have begun their semi-retirement and made a healthy living playing only festivals and never playing a single note of new music.
"Music Complete" shouldn't exist. And yet here they are, releasing "Restless" as their comeback single. New Order have perfected the "we're back!" lead-off single during this second phase of their career, gone are the days when they're return with bombshell mindfucks like "Fine Time", now it's all about slipping right back into that old shoe and reminding people in the first thirty seconds that yes, you are listening to a New Order song. "Regret" is still the gold standard in that regard, and they've tried to rewrite perfection a few times now ("Crystal", "Krafty") but couldn't, and probably never will, but no matter. "Superheated" has become my favourite New Order album closer since "Leave Me Alone", although non-Killers fans may find it too ... Killers-y. "Singularity" recalls The Cure circa "Pornography" and might be the most they've sounded like Joy Division since Joy Division, at least for the first minute. Then it breaks into patented New Order dance rock with a synth hook lifted almost wholesale from "Bizarre Love Triangle". Somehow it all works. Based on the title, I expected "Tutti Frutti" to be a charmingly dumb song -- "Rock the Shack II", more or less -- but it turned out to be a dancefloor-ready stomper that ancient bands should have no business dabbling in, but again, New Order have deployed the spirit of "Technique" and it's a formula that still works against all odds and general common sense. Finally, "Nothing But a Fool" is the album's centrepiece, running nearly eight minutes, featuring the album's best chorus and one of Barney Sumner's few genuinely heartbreaking lyrics in his career.
The narrative is important. It could have been the steady third album by a band happy to tread water in mid-sized venues, but instead it's the shockingly great tenth album by a band that continues building their remarkable legacy.