Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ by New Order.
The first major motion New Order make on their 1983 opus is purely aesthetic. The departure away from the embers of post-punk and into the annals of synth-pop history. The group’s first LP ‘Movement’ is a solid body of work, one which still offers plenty to the modern listener. It is, however, essentially a leftover Joy Division album.
Listening back, there’s an awkwardness in Bernard Sumner’s vocal delivery throughout the entire project. A fault which could and should be forgiven by most, considering the giant shoes he was tasked with trying to fill. It’s the sound of a group still struggling to find their feet and more importantly, their raison d’etre.
This is not the case on ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’. With the full embrace of lush synth textures and a sonic shift toward the industrial comes a calling card sound. Critics who painted the group as a living in Joy Division's glory days must have heard the record through gritted teeth. A departure and an arrival all at once.
The exact origin of the then-new dance-inspired sound remains the work of urban legend, but the band were definitely highly influenced by their trips to New York and its underground club scene. Credit too must be given to Kraftwerk, whose innovative work in the 70s laid the foundations synth-pop would be built upon. Tellingly, the original cassette issue of the album lists Your Silent Face under the working title KW1.
The Age Of Consent sprints the listener into the album. A track considered by many, with good reason, to be among the best ever made under the guise of Synth-Pop. It’s in the drum lines, alternating between a 16th note hi-hat pattern and accented snare jabs, all washed down with a healthy dose of warm reverb. A beat so frantic that it dictates the tone of everything that’s put on top of it. Sumner’s vocal lines skip atop one another and the guitars play as if they're hanging onto time for dear life.
Only the lush synth line, spilling into the mix after Sumner's terse reference to “the birds and the bees” manages to contain it. Consciously or not, the group were already showing favour to their newfound electronic emphasis. To those who’d mourn the death of Joy Division’s post-punk, Sumner candidly asks “Won't you please let me go?”.
Some of the group’s Manchester origins do remain in the final product. Were plenty synth-pop acts championed a distinctly commercial vibe (take a group like The Pet Shop Boys), New Order’s sound was a marriage of the industrial with the organic. Uptempo and even sometimes upbeat, but always profoundly gloomy.
A track such as Ultraviolence typifies this clearly with a beat which wouldn’t have been out of place in most nightclubs. However, a close examination of its lyrical content finds the tune’s emotional centre embedded in regret. It’s a track whose focus is on the relentless momentum of time “These years gone by”, looking back on wrongs, never to be made right “Everybody makes mistakes/ Even me.”
Written in the past tense, Ultraviolence is typical of most of the lyrical content on 'Power, Corruption & Lies'. It’s rarely about being caught up in the moment and so much more about reliving it over in your mind, for better or worse.
The group’s interest in the poetic is telling. One of the most striking features of New Order’s lyrics is the strange blend of working-class realism with the constructed image. A personal favourite from the album has always been on its closer Leave Me Alone. Sumner’s abject isolation is only enunciated by the idea of “a hundred unions in the snow”, a description cold enough to reflect the lyricist's feelings toward the idea of a romantic partnership. A striking image in its own right, made all the more real by its position right at the end of ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’. Where most albums tend to reach for some sense of closure, New Order let their masterpiece wallow in the melancholy.
From a bird’s eye view, the 8 songs on ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ that make up the album's forty-two minute run time can seem modest. While sparse would be a cruel description, there’s little in the way of solid reasoning to suggest why the group had to omit a track like Blue Monday. Even now, when literal space on vinyl is a bygone concern, the track never lands on any reissues or remasters.
Yet, when you view the album head on, at eye level, the reason is clear. ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ is certainly thematic, though not specific enough to be considered truly conceptual. However, it is an LP that lives, breathes and flourishes on a very specific mood palette. One which Blue Monday just doesn’t belong in.
‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ is a meditation on disenchantment. A work of art which strives to, and succeeds in, conveying the very real sense of isolation which often accompanies our lives. In one form or another, each of the 8 tracks on the LP are anthems for the dissatisfied. Stories of people moving toward, if not always actually reaching, something else.