Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The central puzzle is that with New Order you have lyrics that most songwriters would look at as senseless knock-offs, and a voice that most singers would call insultingly blank, and when you put the two together you sometimes get records which turn your stomach upside down with their brilliance. Actually, that’s not a puzzle at all: that’s just how pop music has always worked, but still New Order remain a frustrating band to write about because their quality is so slippery but so undeniable. If the only good records they’d released were the mouldbreaking disco ones like “Blue Monday”, then they’d still have been unspeakably important but you could at least explain why and close the book on them. The problem is, though, that their really good records are the ones like “Regret”, which seem the most typical.

On the other hand, maybe that’s just the point – there’s something so offhanded and casual about New Order that their songs never quite lose their friendliness and freshness. New Order are less alienating than any band who’s been around and through as much as them have a right to be, due mostly to Bernard Sumner’s everybloke vocals. Usually when British singers get praised for their ordinariness or blokedom it just means they sound like a rubbish version of John Lennon, but Sumner’s non-singing is a one-off, and can be amazingly affecting even when he’s downright mumbly. On “Regret” for example, my favourite bit is when he sings “Look at me / I love you”, but for ages I thought he sang “Look at me / I’m not you”, which I liked just as much. I mentioned this to Al, and he said he’d changed his mind about that lyric too, but the other way round.

Which is as neat a demonstration of the dangers of locating meaning in lyrics as you could ask for, and also tells you that the band’s crunchy tech-pop sound is where New Order really marks out its territory, not to mention its unbettered combination of wistfulness and euphoria. But Bernard is still the reason nobody’s managed to imitate them well. On “Regret”, for example, he’s singing “I would like a place I could call my own / Have a conversation on the telephone” , which is never going to trouble the rock-is-poetry set, and he somehow fills it with enough weary longing to punch a hole through the bottom of your heart, without making the remotest detectable vocal effort. You could write ten thousand pages about this band, and still be no nearer the centre of it.