Up, down, turn around. New Order kicked off their new U.S. tour last night with a celebratory sold-out show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The Manchester goth-disco kingpins are in cocky form these days, after releasing their sparkling new Music Complete in the wake of their nasty split with bassist Peter Hook. Indeed, the tour poster shows the replacement bass guy standing way out in front of the other four, to really rub in the point that nobody misses Hooky, whose signature basslines aren’t tough for the new guy to duplicate. Yet after all these years, it remains profoundly weird to see the geeks in New Order enjoy themselves onstage. Nobody but Bernard Sumner could hold the stage in such a posh venue moaning, “Tonight I should have stayed at home / Playing with my pleasure zone.”
Sumner’s boyish clumsiness is the key to his appeal as a frontman—he sings these songs about as well as any random audience member would, dancing significantly worse, yet that anonymous air is how he nails the mood of an everykid swallowed up in vast dance sounds beyond his comprehension. The way he swoons in “Temptation” is so moving because of how Sumner approaches the dance-floor scene with so much trepidation: What am I doing here? Who is that girl? Is she watching me? Has she got green eyes, blue eyes, grey eyes? Is it too late to run for the exit and walk home alone or am I trapped dancing here with all these strangers? It’s a dance classic no competent dancer could have performed, and hearing the live crowd echo back those awestruck “whoo-hoo-ooo-ooo-ooo” chants is immensely moving.
New York is the city where New Order really found their New — the moment in the early 1980s when the surviving members of Joy Division regrouped after Ian Curtis’ suicide, enlisted the drummer’s girlfriend on synthesizer, and found fresh inspiration in the perfect beats of NYC disco and hip-hop. As Summer explains in his recent memoir Chapter and Verse: “I remember quite clearly sitting in a club in New York one night, around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and thinking how great it would be if we made music, electronic music, that could be played in one of these clubs.” New Order’s live show is all about translating the vibe of a seedy late-night club to an outdoor European festival setting and then — on a tour like this — back into an urban indoor venue, with hits like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith.”
They’re playing a handful of Joy Division classics on this tour, as they absolutely should — it once meant something for them not to revisit any Joy Division material, but now it means something that they do. Sumner introduced “Ceremony” early on with the words, “This is the last song Joy Division ever wrote.” He also earned a big hand for his endearing melodica solo in “Your Silent Face.” He’s the kind of frontman who should always hold a guitar, even if he’s not playing it, just to keep him from dancing. The 1985 synth-pop epiphany “The Perfect Kiss” was a stunning emotional peak: Sumner hunched over his guitar, plucking with “What does this string do?” curiosity; Stephen Morris standing at attention behind his drum kit, focusing on his synth-bongo solo; Gillian Gilbert shy as ever, hiding behind her keyboard, as the beats combust into a celebration of social anxiety. (The current quintet lineup also includes longtime guitarist/keyboardist Phil Cunningham — still the new bloke after 15 years.)
There were moments where the energy level sagged, especially in the first half, which was overloaded with new material, replicated in its studio form so precisely there was nothing to get excited about. (“Singularity” and “Academic” are the kickiest new songs; “Plastic” and “People on the High Line” are real drags.) In a typically droll self-sabotaging move, New Order clogged the set with so many new songs that they ran out of time and had to cut their encore short. At the end, Sumner polled the audience on whether to end with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or “Blue Monday.” The crowd roared louder for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (my vote as well) and they played it magnificently as the festival sing-along it’s improbably become, ending with the crashing rock chords from “Disorder.”
But “Temptation” was the highlight, as it would always be in any band’s set. In a moving touch, it began with the synth-string riff from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” which slowly mutated into Gilbert’s famously primitive synth buzz. Though they tinkered with the structure of this song many times over the years, tonight New Order built on the first and best nine-minute version from the Factus 8 1981-1982 EP, the one where you can hear Sumner yell, “Hey!” when manager Rob Gretton sneaks up behind him in the studio and sticks a snowball down his shirt. The longer the groove builds, the more joyous it gets. It remains as moving as ever because New Order are no closer to understanding all these emotions than they were back then — the human heart, like a synthesizer, is a complex machine that baffles and intimidates them. Yet they’re still determined to play with the buttons and see if they can somehow use this machine to connect to the outside world.