Alienation is a funny thing. When New Order first came to prominence in the mid '80s, it owed most of its audience to a shared sense of estrangement. Some of that had to do with what the songs said, but mostly it was a reflection of how they sounded -- of the emptiness evoked by their affectless vocals, thrumming guitars and insistent beat.
At first, New Order's all-tension/no-release approach made it an anomaly on the dance music scene. But as time passed, not only were New Order's ideas absorbed into the mainstream, but the group itself was beginning to cross over, cracking the Top 40 in this country and topping the singles chart in its native Britain.
And there's the rub with "Republic" (QWest/Warner Bros. 45250, arriving in stores today). Because even though the band's lyrical content remains as distant and disaffected as ever, the music is perky, approachable and pop-friendly -- qualities that, for many longtime listeners, bear the scent of betrayal.
"Regret," the album's first single, seems to sum up everything the old fans fear about the new New Order. Although it bears all the hallmarks of the group's sound, from Bernard Sumner's blandly functional voice to Peter Hook's droningly tuneful bass lines, it ekes every ounce of pop potential from the formula. Indeed, the song is positively overflowing with melody, to such a degree that the song's harmonic luster almost overshadows emotional desperation of lyrics like "I was a short fuse, burning all the time."
Does that really constitute a sellout, though? Or has New Order simply become competent enough to make the most of its melodic ideas?
Frankly, the latter seems likelier.
After all, it's not as if the group has taken all the edges off its sound -- or even blunted them much. True, there are back-up singers smoothing the choruses to "World" and "Liar," but that hardly makes the music any less urgent. Nor do the lush chord-changes in the chorus to "Everyone Everywhere" contradict its underlying romantic unease.
If anything, the added layers of vocal and instrumental polish merely widen the band's range of expression, affording it a greater degree of emotional nuance than before. "Chemical," for example, gets most of its rhythmic momentum from the sawing synth-bass that buzzes beneath each verse, but rather than do the obvious and push that riff into full techno overdrive, the band pulls back, varying the intensity of the arrangement instead of letting the rhythm run away with the song. And in the process the group turns what might have been a passable dance tune into something altogether more memorable.
Real sellouts wouldn't have played it that way. And if New Order's insistence on melodic competence isn't alternative enough for some listeners, it's worth remembering that there's a difference between alienation and outright separatism.