The first New Order album in eight years finds the survivors of Joy Division banging their collective drum in yet another monochromatic burst of synthetic rapture. Not that Manchester's most brooding band ever really suffered commercially from picking at the same scab -- or from adhering to the same descending minor-chord progressions ad nauseam. But you'd think that after 20 years of swirling disco-angst and oblivion, Bernard Sumner and the gang would branch into romantic obsession -- or grim, atmospheric pop -- for a change.
At least Sumner is losing sleep over the big stuff these days. "I don't wanna be/What other people are/Don't wanna own a key/Don't wanna wash my car," he whines opposite Billy Corgan on "Turn My Way." Thankfully, the song features the only cameo from little Baldy: It's short, sweet, and as self-indulgent as anything that Morrissey might pull out of his snuff box. A few other tunes recycle the best New Order riffs you've come to know and love ("Crystal," "Sixty Miles an Hour"), giving fans of danceable gloom and mild irony a reason to give a shit, if not stick to the speed limit.
Much heralded on their own shores recently for compiling a missing masterwork and/or launching a comeback, the members of New Order don't turn one speck of übersoil here -- unless it's to rob the graves of their own past. But who can really blame them? As the likeliest source behind a glut of bad '80s-era imitators (Thrashing Doves, anyone?), Sumner and chums can hold their heads high after tickling pleasure centers the world over and giving the Cure a run for its money. Peter Hook's bass lines still irrigate to the lowest chakra, and there's piston precision and machine-like tribal clamor to that electrodance beat. Sometimes it's enough to tug on your heartstrings with 4/4 fury.
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Glamlessly middle-aged, Manchester's doom merchants have nonetheless managed to recruit two guys from Primal Scream for a ditzy whoop-along called "Rock the Shack," a cautionary tale about magic potions and fatted calves. In a complete about-face compared to Joy Division's Nazi-baiting days (remember those prison-camp haircuts?), Sumner saves the grislier moments of being a rock fossil for the album's final curtain, "Run Wild," singing, "If Jesus comes to take your hand/I won't let go." Promising "good times around the corner," he sounds like a guy who expects to take a few more blazing spins on the Catherine Wheel. Then comes the kicker: "I'm gonna live till I die/I'm gonna live to get high," he croons without any irony or sadness. It sort of leaves Utopia right where it was in 1993, as undiscovered as El Dorado or Shangri-la but with shuffleboard and Mylanta available 24/7.