I’ve always found Low-Life to be one of the most beautiful of New Order’s albums.
In part, that’s because of how eloquently it responds to Power, Corruption and Lies, the band’s second album, and first album in which they really hit their stride as a band.
You might say that, on “Age of Consent,” New Order achieved such a perfect fusion of guitars and synthesisers that they had effectively created a new instrument.
At no point in their career would they rival this fusion – it has the revelation of a conceptual and aesthetic breakthrough, rendered as completely and comprehensively as possible.
Of course, you could also say that New Order peaked too soon. They had decisively come of age. Where could they go from here?
Over the course of the 80s and 90s, they would formulate several answers to that question.
First, they could continue to apply this perfect formula – fusion of guitars and synthesizers – to an expanding repertoire of pop songs.
Second, they could start to experiment with long-form compositions, situating their 1988 release Technique at the nexus between a singles collection and a remix album.
Third, they could incorporate trends in electronic music as they continued to evolve, as occurred on 1989’s Technique and 1993’s Republic.
Yet Low-Life offers a different strategy from these more conventional “evolutions” – what might instead be called a conscious devolution of style.
That’s particularly clear when you listen to Power, Corruption and Lies and Low-Life side by side.
Two things strike you.
First, the majority of Low-Life sounds much “tinnier” and more constrained than Power, Corruption and Lies, as if the band had taken a step backwards in production design.
Second, the key moments on Low-Life feel richer and more expansive than anything on Power Corruption and Lies, as if the band had simultaneously taken a step forward in production design.
Between those two poles lies the most cathartic New Order album.
For Low-Life undoes the sublime fusions of Power, Corruption and Lies in favour of textures that are “incompletely” guitar or synth-centric.
When the guitars dominate, they’re a bit too tinny; when the synths dominate, they’re a bit too ambient.
Until, of course, that perfect moment – fleeting in each song – when everything comes together. The perfect kiss.
Part of what made Power, Corruption and Lies startling was the way in which it framed the synthesizer as a logical evolution of the electric guitar.
By devolving that chronology, however, Low-Life goes one step further: it precludes any sense that the guitar came first.
Instead, the key moments on this third album make it impossible to conceive how the guitar and synthesizer were ever separate from one another – temporally, spatially, musically.
Appropriately, Bernard Sumner’s voice is also more performatively incomplete this time around.
Never quite filling any space or sequence it occupies, it is never quite at home in either the guitar or synth texture, and only really comfortable when these two textures come together and partially drown it out.
In every song, this voice, the guitars and the synths all yearn to meet each other, but are so overwhelmed when they do that their communion can only last a matter of moments.
Nowhere is that clearer than at the end of “Sub-Culture,” whose awkward hyphenations reflect those of the title, and the deliberate fractures of the album as a whole.
In a way, the cover says it all.
On the one hand, this was the only New Order cover that ever featured images of the band.
At the same time, the band never appear together in any one image.
While convention has the photograph of Stephen Morris as the “official” cover, the original release came with a photograph of each member of the band. These could be rotated at will.
There was never a more tactile demonstration of how much the romanticism of New Order inhered in the spaces between its members and instruments.
Perhaps that’s why their music bring my early 20s back to me so vividly – to listen to them is to yearn for them.
With 1986’s Brotherhood, they’d identify that performative incompletion even more directly with the structure of the album – first side post-punk, second side synthpop.
On Brotherhood, the fusion of guitars and synths, and the cohesion of the band, becomes as notional and fantastic as the relationship between one side of an album and the next.
Yet Low-Life doesn’t require you to turn the record over to approach that breathless horizon – it’s internalised by every song.