A New Life Turns Towards You: New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies at 40

Music Features New Order
A New Life Turns Towards You: New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies at 40

In 1981, the German conceptual artist Gerhard Richter held an exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Cologne. Famous for a penchant technique called “the blur,” Richter’s work at the time explored music, culture and the trauma of totalitarianism. His subjects ranged from naturescapes to depictions of murdered relatives to a “photo-painting” of a candle that—in 1988—would become the cover of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. On the opening night of the exhibit, he vandalized the building, graffitiing a phrase onto one wall: “Power, Corruption and Lies.”

That heady title names a New Order record that has gone down in history as the band’s assertion of self. Released on May 2, 1983, Power, Corruption and Lies is a record for springtime; an album in bloom. The flowers on the cover—a reproduction of the Henri Fantin-Latour painting “A Basket of Roses” designed by Peter Saville—represented the seductive allure of the title’s vices,but they also suggest the group’s rebirth. Two months after the release of their groundbreaking single “Blue Monday,” New Order had only just risen from Joy Division’s ashes after Ian Curtis’ 1980 suicide—but they were channeling their mourning into reinvention.

On Power, Corruption and Lies, the post-punk bones of Joy Division and New Order’s first outing Movement are uplifted with new sounds and subjects. The former come courtesy of Gillian Gilbert’s keys and the influence of dance music and early electronic acts like Kraftwerk, whose album Pan-Europe Express was Joy Division’s concert warm-up music of choice. The latter takes shape in its lyrics. The crises of the groups’ previous works are still there, profoundly influenced by their real-life confrontation with loss. But, with Bernard Sumner as the frontman and lead guitarist, Power’s anxieties are cut with humor, connection and curiosity. “The Village,” for instance, celebrates a love so pure it’s reflected in the nurturing earth itself, but the song keeps a mournful eye on the inevitable end. While looking ahead to “a new life” amongst the flowers, Sumner makes a direct reference to Curtis’ death: “their love died three years ago.” Meanwhile, synths and samples weave into droning guitars; “Ultraviolence” and “Ecstasy” go hand-in-hand.

“Age Of Consent” does this dance so perfectly that it’s risen to legendary status. In fact, it’s the perfect tone-setter, opening the album by hashing out the bitter end of a relationship over a gleeful beat. Peter Hook sets the stage with that famous bass riff, soon to be joined by Stephen Morris—with a drumline that echoes “Love Will Tear Us Apart”—and Gilbert and Sumner eagerly exploring the sonic grounds they establish. There’s a naivete in the angst and indecision of “Age of Consent.” Its lyrics are caught between begging for permission to move on, insisting knowledge about “the birds and the bees” and that classic ending refrain: “I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you.” Both Joy Division and New Order understood that there’s something exhilarating in abject sorrow. Power, Corruption and Lies dares to pair that catharsis with a hint of camp.

Even some of Power, Corruption and Lies’ darkest moments benefit from this expansive approach, using those new ideas and technologies to plumb new depths. Sumner once quipped that groups like the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark taught him that it was possible to “make music without guitars,” but “5 8 6” turns his voice into an instrument, adding an unearthly echo to the proclamation: “I see danger on the corner sent by me.” Later, “Ultraviolence” echoes the esoteric literary inspirations of Joy Division tracks like “Atrocity Exhibition” and “Colony,” but detours by taking on the perspective of a silenced victim in lieu of an abstract commentary on society’s ills, crying out: “Who felt those cold hands touch my skin?”

In “Your Silent Face,” the album’s apotheosis, Gilbert’s climbing synths and electronics lead the way with a build inspired by the “sparkly sound” of Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless.” Soon, melodic guitar hooks call out as if from miles away and Sumner takes to the microphone, his cryptic lyrics reflecting on unsaid thoughts and unwalked paths. Amidst these musings are two direct addresses: the wounded, accusatory “we asked you what you’d seen, you said you didn’t care” and the sudden anticlimactic “you’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?”.

“You can tell we’re not being terribly serious,” Morris told NME of this Manc couplet in a 2020 interview. It’s a tongue-in-cheek bait-and-switch, but it’s also the perfect dissemination of tension for a song with questions left unresolved—if they ever could be answered. To neatly wrap them with some kind of epiphany would ring flat, but pushing the listener away as Sumner does only serves to draw you in closer to a different, stranger place than before. Thus, the joke belies Power’s fundamental tenet: By giving themselves permission to not be terribly serious, New Order were able to test the waters and come up with something entirely new.

It turns out that that something new satiated a hunger in the burgeoning pop landscape of the 1980s. Power, Corruption and Lies was praised for its innovative marriage of post-punk and dance, and—after its release—New Order continued to explore their new sound. 1985’s Low Life refined the sonic world that Power established, and 1986’s Brotherhood is split into guitar-based and electronic sides—the latter of which featured the group’s breakthrough US single “Bizarre Love Triangle.” In addition to album work, New Order spent the ‘80s putting out an unparalleled run of 12” singles and, for the compilation Substance 1987, beloved tracks like “True Faith” and “Temptation” were paired with Joy Division-era compositions like “Ceremony” and remixed for club play, building off of Power’s guiding philosophy to innovate anew.

As a result of Power, Corruption and Lies, New Order went on to establish themselves not only as the leaders of alternative dance music, but as a driving force for the Madchester pop scene. The album’s lighthearted sound was a refreshing new perspective that proved inspirational for the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and New Order’s tangible success subsidized a proving ground for them in the form of Factory Records’ Haçienda nightclub. Later, those catchy hooks and feel-good themes would go on to form the basis of Britpop groups like Blur and Pulp and modern bands like Bloc Party.

Across the pond, the influence of Power, Corruption and Lies is obvious not only in the litany of bands who have covered “Age of Consent”—Arcade Fire, Cayetana and Built to Spill, to name a few—but in the American dance-punk and post-punk revival movements of the new millennium. LCD Soundsystem and the Postal Service take clear inspiration from the album’s pairing of pop sensibilities with emotional outpour, while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ dance-floor anthem “Heads Will Roll” suggests the morbid moves of “5 8 6.” The National’s new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein even features a love song called “New Order T-Shirt.”

Of course, New Order are decidedly aesthetes, and the iconography of Power, Corruption and Lies is another piece of its legacy. The Fantin-Latour painting and its color-coded title were featured in Supreme’s 2013 Spring-Summer collection, as well as a 2010 Royal Mail “Classic Album Cover” stamp set. The story goes that, while trying to secure the rights to reproduce “A Basket of Roses,” Factory Records owner Tony Wilson was rebuffed by the National Gallery of London, who told him that the painting belonged to “the people of Britain.” His response? “I believe the people want it.”

Annie Parnell is a writer, radio host and audio producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in The Virginia Literary Review, Pop Matters, The Boot and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @avparnell and at her website, avparnell.wordpress.com.

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