New Order – Leave Me Alone
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
I think Bernard Sumner is an extrovert, or at least that he plays one when he sings. If you take introversion and extroversion to be just a difference in what exhausts a person’s social and emotional resources, either being alone or being with others, than the forced move from Joy Division to New Order is among other things a move from introversion (has any other band drawn as much strength from solitude?) to extroversion. Joy Division did not by any stretch want you to get closer to it, even if you couldn’t help yourself; New Order is much more human, and consequently more clumsy.
That doesn’t mean, though, that extroversion is necessarily healthy and the other pathological. The fact that Ian Curtis hung himself definitely qualifies for that label, but on New Order’s first few grim albums especially things are nearly as fraught. Sumner is either still dealing with the death of Curtis or just the morbid fact that he was now the human face of the band. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy, and Joy Division certainly wasn’t; but whereas that band didn’t want (in fact was deeply suspicious of) regular human contact the pain of Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies is that of shyness, of a band that desperately wants to connect but that doesn’t think it’s going to work.
There’s even something about the exuberantly nonsensical quality of Sumner’s lyrics, from the shatteringly oblique “Blue Monday” all the way up to something like “Run Wild” that points towards other people. Curtis always sounded like a lonely sentinel content and doomed to howl at the world itself, but Sumner’s playful and often outlandish bon mots can only be muddled attempts at impressing/entertaining another human being.
Even extroverts need their private time, though. It’s a shock as an extrovert to befriend or date an introvert; sure, intellectually you understand when they tell you they occasionally need to be alone to unwind after socialising, but it’s also surprising when it turns out they really mean it, and not once a month but repeatedly in a week. Extroverts, at least the ones I know, work entirely differently. You cruise along, embodying the contention that man is a social animal, and then one day the sky is a particular shade of grey and you find that you suddenly need to go for a long walk by yourself.
Power, Corruption & Lies isn’t exactly party music even if you get the version with “Blue Monday” tacked on, but it is the only album I can think of to in part attempt to depict the way those days feel. I came to it backwards, after the joy-in-pain of the 12” mixes of Substance, and while I was prepared to hear something you couldn’t dance to as well, the sheer stunned grief of the album was a jolt to my system. “Leave Me Alone,” the closer, could have been an attempt to shrug off the grey on the way out but from the title alone you know that’s not what happens.
The song does provide us with another blissful example of why New Order can’t really exist without Peter Hook, or at least without the melodic symbiosis between his bass and Sumner’s guitar. The opening and closing sections are kept wordless both because Sumner has little to say (and for once, doesn’t keep talking anyway) and just, you feel, to give the listener full access to the sound a hundred lesser bands keep trying to copy in spirit if not in note. But as with most of New Order’s album tracks, the center of it deserving or not is Bernard Sumner’s vocals.
Thankfully here they do deserve it. The “thousand islands in the sea” setting is as silly as any other New Order lyric that makes you want to pinch Sumner’s cheek, but the end of the song swirls around two statements that pack more punch. “You get these words wrong” resonates, in Sumner’s epically weary performance, a quality and magnitude of futility that is so over the top that it can only accurately reproduce how you feel around someone you love who you can’t talk to anymore. “But for these last few days, leave me alone,” he sings under his breath, and it’s a rare moment of self-understanding. He doesn’t want the world to go away, doesn’t even really want you to; but the sky is that shade of grey again, and the polarities have flipped. “Leave Me Alone” not only depicts the kind of day where extroverts suddenly find their batteries drained by others, it possesses the wisdom to know it’s never going to last. The world is too much with us, even if we do need to stand on our own island for a little while sometimes.