ost bands fold or become an exercise in self-parody when a key member is lost... to lose your lead singer and de facto guiding force is absolutely unthinkable (as are the current incarnations of The Doors, Queen, and INXS). Joy Division were a cause celebre amongst the wave of British bands that appeared in the post-Pistols indie boom. Led by Ian Curtis, who took to the stage like a wiry prophet, distilling the contrarian rhetoric and outsider mentality of punk rock and applying it to the world of human relationships, they were the perfect example of how a band could escape punk's stylistic straitjacket and accomplish something meaningful. When Curtis killed himself, no one asked what would become of the rest of his band. Most people tuned in to Joy Division at that point scarcely realized they were a band, not a vocalist and some backing musicians. When these musicians soldiered on as New Order, their first shows were acutely aware of this fact—the center of the stage hung open and unoccupied, a tacit acknowledgment of what was no longer there.
Over the course of the intervening 26 years, New Order have transformed themselves from the survivors of Rock N' Roll tragedy into hitmakers, World Cup anthem-writers, even a halfway decent live act. Singles is the story of this transition, all 31 of the band's pop missives sequenced chronologically, all in their original 7" form. The route by which New Order escaped the ashes of Joy Division's abrupt end is made abundantly clear over the course of this compilation: through a series of landmark records ("Everything's Gone Green," "Temptation," "Blue Monday," "The Perfect Kiss," to name but a few) the band increasingly embraced technology, electronic music, and the dancefloor. At the same time, the strain of melancholy has never entirely left their music, a big part of what has ensured their lasting appeal amongst both indie rock and dance fans.
Their ability to face but not be confined by the past was apparent even from the start—first New Order single "Ceremony" is a Joy Division tune hesitantly refashioned by the survivors, with the band's old producer at the helm, but also with JD guitarist turned NO vocalist Bernard Sumner sounding more like a man laying ghosts to rest than being consumed by them. Enter New Order's second single, "Procession." A swelling, dreamy synth opens, followed by a gravity-defying bassline, the drums and guitar kick in and then the voice—"There is no end to this / I have seen your face / But I don't recognize all these things / You must have kept behind," "At night it gets cold and / You'd dearly like to turn away / An escape that fails / and makes the wounds that time won't heal" and really, Bernard, but what could you be talking about? It's telling that the boys have disavowed this song in recent years—"it's a bit nancy," Mr. Sumner tells us, for within "Procession" is New Order's most awful secret: they saw first-hand the brutal end result of Joy Division's bleakness and turned right the fuck around.
Appropriately enough, the last song on Singles (the US release adds an unnecessary remix of "Temptation") is "Turn," the strongest from their most recent record, and one which plays almost like a sequel to "Procession" ("Days turn into months and years / I can't forget that you were here / I feel your presence everywhere / In the corner over there / Turn your eyes from me / It's time for me to go"). The connection between the past and the present could scarcely be more apparent. Where Joy Division's music was about tension, pain, and darkness, every one of the songs on Singles is about love—"It's called love / And it's so uncool / It's called love / And somehow it's become unmentionable," says "Thieves Like Us." Too right—the love that runs throughout this music runs the gamut from banal to beautiful to tragic to transcendent—but it always represents not only the struggle of New Order against the horror of their own past, but also the struggle of unadorned, naive love against the negativity and cynicism of our times.
The only real problem with Singles is that it does what it does in such a thoroughly dispassionate, un-messy way: it is more or less a strict, chronological compiling of New Order's (duh) singles, drawing together the original 7" edits rather than the often superior 12" versions or the updated/ re-recorded ones (which have peppered all three of their previous compilations). That this is both to its credit and to its downfall is tantamount to understanding the paradox of both the band and any attempt to codify their releases.
Does it render every other New Order collection obsolete? Well, pretty much, yes. Does it, via sequencing or track selection, capture any of the sense of experimentation, wanderlust and (let's just say it) dottiness that is New Order's stock-in-trade? No, not at all. Substance, The Best Of and International, for all their many flaws, showed a band unique in their (or any) day—unafraid to tamper with their own back-catalog, concerned more with presenting a recording that was technically up-to-date than one that reflected the memories of fans and ready to sacrifice historical accuracy for temporal relevance. Singles may be a technically more correct record of New Order's releases, but this is precisely what mars it—making it feel like a museum piece, not a living, breathing document of a band whose history is still in the making.
On the other hand, it's certainly hard to argue with the visceral joys of Singles—31 songs in 2 discs, coming in at barely over 2 hours, this is a collection that covers enormous ground with little time to spare for extraneous moments. Continuing the paradox that is the heart and soul of both this band and this release, Singles ends up being the best New Order collection currently available, simply due to the fact that it exercises icy precision upon this most imprecise of groups. For a neophyte, this is clearly the place to start. For the seasoned travelers amongst us, it exists as a crucial reminder of the fact that there will never be a "Greatest Hits" or "Best Of" that can adequately address our love of a band whose very existence constitutes a miracle.