Record all the benefit singles you want, but sometimes the only honest response to crisis is to wallow in your own confusion. And Goths and Smiths aside, have any popular musicians made more of moping around than Leonard Cohen and New Order? Obviously, their methods differ wildly. Cohen has sounded like an old man from the jump—partly because he was, at least in the pop terms of youth-saturated 1968, when he recorded his debut at 34—and partly because of his famously dry, low-key voice, which would turn into a biting rasp by the mid ’80s. New Order, on the other hand, have always evoked the voice of white suburbanite ur-adolescence, no small breeding ground for angst its own self. Having been forcibly purged of their original guiding force, Ian Curtis—whose voice at 23 sounded like it had been through as much as Cohen’s would in his fifties—they brought themselves back from death by getting high on life. But no matter how caffeinated the blips and beats surrounding him, vocalist Bernard Sumner continued to sound as preternaturally confused as his adolescent fan base felt. Then, odd side project and World Cup anthem aside, they took eight years off, appropriate for shut-in icons and one year fewer than Cohen. And like Cohen’s Ten New Songs, their new Get Ready is neither as bad as you might fear nor as good as you might hope.
Of course, good and bad aside, how much different could you expect a new Leonard Cohen album to be? Nine years away from the studio since 1992’s The Future, five of them at a Zen monastery near Los Angeles (and at least one of them, rumor has it, thinking up the current album’s title), he’s the same as he ever was—ruminative, droll, whispery, and as has been the case since 1988’s I’m Your Man,keyboard-heavy. Instead of the fire-and-brimstone fervor that marked that album and The Future, and whose timing would be as fortuitous as his old compatriot Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” is turning out to be, Ten New Songs is all introspection, closer in sound to a technologically updated Songs From a Room. The closest he comes to a declarative statement à la “Democracy” or “First We Take Manhattan” is the low-key “The Land of Plenty”—even if “For what’s left of our religion/I lift my voice and pray” is about the Mount Baldy monastery, it connects to recent events.
The stumbling block, at first, is the music. I’m Your Man and The Future rolled over folkie niceties with a crude sense of purpose. But on Ten New Songs, the spare synth backdrops of Cohen’s longtime backing vocalist and co-songwriter Sharon Robinson, depicted on the CD’s cover, initially sound chintzy and thin, like they’re just sitting there waiting for something stronger than Cohen’s parched whisper to make themselves felt. Eventually, though, the Casio-lounge grooves sink in—mostly because they stay out of the way of the words, which rank with the most careful of Cohen’s career: spare, colloquial, occasionally wry (“I’m wanted at the traffic jam/They’re saving me a seat”). If he sounds a little absent, he sort of is, having added his vocals only after Robinson composed and produced and performed almost everything else. Cohen professes himself satisfied with the results in a recent LA Weekly cover story, and there’s no doubt that he is. But I wonder how much of a coincidence it is that two separate songs here find him declaring, “I do what I am told.”
New Order, on the other hand, sound like they’re chomping at the bit. Their attitude is as vital as ever, maybe more: Sumner sounds eternally youthful and not particularly angsty this time around. In fact, Get Ready is even being hailed in some quarters as a return to form. This is less wishful thinking (though it’s that, too) than an acknowledgment that they haven’t quite sounded like this before. In fact, the band on Get Ready has the kind of Euro-sheen of a rock band whose production has been refracted through techno and industrial, à la early-’90s U2, or rave & rollers like Happy Mondays and Primal Scream: in short, like an updated take on the bands that ripped off New Order in the first place. The techno touches themselves are minimal, mostly limited to filtered, expanding/contracting keyboard textures ripe for remixing. (Wonder how much A&R man and superstar DJ Pete Tong had to do with this.)
But the album’s title is the first sign that something is amiss—not so much in the “Get ready for what?” sense as in, “Why should we get ready?” New Order are classic observers—even at their most directly emotional, there’s a brittleness that puts them at a critical distance from messes they found themselves in. Their soul is in their distance. Calling the album Get Ready feels as if they’re psyching themselves up for the task at hand—like they’re raring to go but aren’t exactly certain where they’re going, or even necessarily why they’re doing it. The songs carry this out—it’s them, not the sonics, that make this the second disappointing New Order album in a row. “Rock the Shack” sounds like a played-straight version of one of those jokes they used to end their albums with; it’s not embarrassing, exactly, but the tone is just off enough to leave you feeling queasy. “Someone Like You,” with its ooh-ooh-ed chorus, serves mainly to illustrate that New Order’s “Temptation” really does contain the greatest “ooh-ooh” ‘s in recorded history, and that no one should bother trying again. Of course, nobody knows those jokers’ shtick better than they do. But it does sort of make it hard to identify with them even in an abstract way, even in moments. The closest the new album comes, frustratingly, is at its end: “I wanna live till I die/I wanna live to get high.” A useful sentiment these days—it’s hard not to wonder if doing that might not have been a more productive use of their time.