The Smoking Cupcake responds to Andrew Wells (see “Comments” section from “The Case for Bad Lieutenant”):


This notion of conventionality that Mr. Wells rehashes (I use the word rehash since, from his argument, it's clear that he didn’t read the Cupcake’s original post closely enough) is an oft heard complaint with all things New Order, no more so than in the reviews of Never Cry Another Tear – which, coincidentally, was one of his original points. It’s also a complete crock of shit, for conventionality is a simple, subjective term elitist-types like to throw around when evaluating works of art. Debating a work’s conventionality is a lot like debating something’s “quality” – what’s quality to one person isn’t necessarily for another (for more on that, see: Pirsig, Robert M. and his many discussions of the concept) (It also brings to mind Jules Winnfield’s take on sewer rat during the final scene of Pulp Fiction: “Hey, sewer rat might taste like Pumpkin Pie but I’d never know ‘cause I’d never eat the filthy mutherfucker.”).

Anyway...


The Cupcake thought it was evident that he wasn’t defending Never Cry Another Tear as a masterwork. Nor was The Cupcake vague by any stretch of the imagination that Sumner et al. have indeed become, to use Wells’ term, conventional over the years – that is if you want to use that term the way he apparently defines it. The Cupcake prefers to think of this as, say: maturing, experimenting with other directions, or, heaven forbid, getting older and simply not giving a fuck about changing the shape of modern music and settling comfortably into elderstatesmenship status. People like Mr. Wells that constantly complain about stuff like conventionality with New Order are missing the boat, especially when they make ridiculously egotistical statements like: conventional listeners “cannot (or prefer not to) identify the lack of substance in the work as many of the surface elements remain in place.” If I wanted to dumb the discussion down in this manner, I could just as easily say that elitist snobs aren’t listening hard enough (which, evidently, they aren’t) and would do well to invest in a good set of headphones, crack open a beer and spend the next 45 minutes in an uninterrupted Bad Lieutenant-induced listening session but that’s too easy.


The evidence…


I can only surmise that by the term conventional, Wells means that latter day New Order et al. have consistently mined the same song structures, pitch points and chords over and over, with repeated effect and success but, through a photocopy-like process, a noticeable disintegration of brilliance and luster has slowly emerged with each repeat of the process. I’m not really sure what to say to that. Am I supposed to, for example, hold it against the band that they’ve knocked out more tracks like “Jetstream” in the last 20 years instead of “Ultraviolence?” If Wells wants to take the time to explain why one track is more conventional than the other, I’m all ears. The Cupcake prefers to hear in a track like “Jetstream” the fundamental building blocks that “Ultraviolence” laid down, not hassle them for sounding conventional. It’s all still there, some people just choose to ignore it and bitch about things like conventionality like a little pig-tailed girl named Sally.


In case Wells hasn’t noticed, New Order have, since around the Brotherhood era, sounded, at least by his rather thin definition of the term, “conventional.” Logically, after three records on which they were trying to pin down their direction and the contain the various mutuations of the sound their Joy Division beginnings produced, by album #4 a repeatable yet unique sound had emerged. From that point forward, everything they’ve done has pretty much followed that blueprint with tweaks here and there. And, most importantly, every time any of them individually, or the band collectively, deviates from this blueprint, they’re accused of being things like conventional or boring or trying too hard to milk past success with limited results. I don’t get it. Take a track like “Crystal” for example. Not only didn’t it sound like anything any other band was doing at the time (or now for that matter), it sounded perfectly unconventionally conventional enough to have been found on any record New Order ever recorded, save for Movement. You can’t have your cake and eat it too – something the reviewers and detractors keep trying to do over and over every time some new red meat comes out to review. Never Cry Another Tear has tons of unconventionally conventional New Order moments, but that’s not the point, because Bad Lieutenant have also clearly charted their own direction and sound conventionally unconventional in their own right. If anyone knows of any other bands that are putting out tracks like “This Is Home” other than Bad Lieutenant, drop that knowledge on The Cupcake pronto.


Moving on (no pun intended)…


I’m not really sure what Wells' point is in saying “there’s nothing wrong with being a conventional pop listener.” It certainly sounds like he thinks there is. If he truly doesn’t look down his nose at conventional pop listeners, he likely wouldn’t have taken the time to introduce the conventionality angle, nor would he have taken the opportunity to make the veiled dig that The Cupcake’s original piece was produced because he felt “personally attacked” that discerning listeners (like, presumably, Mr. Wells) and reviewers pointed a bunch of shit out that The Cupcake didn’t agree with. As I flatly stated several times in “The Case for Bad Lieutenant,” my original gripes were about how, technically, the album was reviewed, not that the reviews were only saying the album was merely okay. If someone, anyone, had written a review that avoided each and every pitfall The Cupcake made note of in Part I (e.g., Barney’s less than stellar lyrical prowess, etc.), he would have been perfectly content to accept it from the “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion” school of reasoning. But they didn’t do that. They chose instead to write a series of trite, shallow and ill-formulated reviews, largely ignoring the actual record.


Never Cry Another Tear
has not been given a fair shake in the music press. Its been on the receiving end of drive-by journalism from the beginning. The only personal attack The Cupcake suffered was one of multiple counts of exposure-to-shitty-journalism.


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10/24/09
OK. I won’t hide it. I’ll just come right out and say it. I love Joy Division. I love New Order. I think Electronic’s first record is one of the best records of the 1990’s. “State Of Shock” and “What Do You Want from Me” repeatedly cattle-brand my psyche. Even “Superhighways” competes hard with New Order’s better singles. So, while the pure cane sugar of Joy Division’s original blueprint has certainly been watered-down with artificial sweetener over the years, there has never been any justifiable reason to question the collective concept of New Order. This was no truer back in 1983 when Power, Corruption and Lies came out than it is now with the debut release of Barney’s new project, Bad Lieutenant. Unfortunately, music critics, being the fickle, contradictory (more on that later) and generally unhappy lot they are, have been whittling away at the New Order legacy for a while now. It started with Republic, extended through all the various side endeavors and the New Order Version 2.0 years and, not surprisingly, continues with the ridiculously trite reviews of Never Cry Another Tear.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and waste anyone’s time purporting that Never Cry Another Tear is a 5-star affair worthy of Technique-like adoration, but I am going to use all my Vincent Bugliosian powers to set some shit straight because nothing annoys me more than flimsy, clich├ęd arguments that are outright unjustified. Don't worry, I’m not going to “review” Never Cry Another Tear. Reviews are inherently subjective (even though they should be objective), so any critique I could offer has already been contaminated by the beginning of this article, thus providing the likes of Petridis (which sounds suspiciously like detritus...), Roffman, Ashman and Ewing a Nagasaki-like yield of explosive retort.

My aim here is purely prosecutorial against crimes of the ivory tower variety. No more, no less.

There is one assumption in what follows: If you’re reading this, I'm assuming you’re already familiar with the story. This is no Joy Division 101, etc.

Barney writes shit lyrics.

This complaint mystifies me, and if I have to see it one more time, I’m taking hostages. How many times do we have to be reminded that Bernard Sumner isn’t William Shakespeare? Is it really necessary to kick the poor guy in the nuts every time you review one of his records by repeatedly using terms like “cringe-worthy” and “riot inducing?” We’ve known this for the 30 odd years he’s been the one penning the lyrics, and it hasn’t bothered us in the least. I still don’t know what the fuck “Blue Monday” is supposed to be about, but the lyrics sound cold, foreboding and mysterious, which is, I assume, the exact feeling Barney was going for. Moreover, until recently, I don’t recall his peculiar talent with the pen bothering most in the critical world. It was almost like, all of sudden, some asshole critic zeroed in on “Slow Jam” and the microscope of redundant criticism started flowing like that spooky and unstoppable acidic blood in Alien.

Generally, we laugh the same way Barney laughs in “Every Little Counts” at his frequent, yet endearing, simplistic lyrical structures. And you know why, cuz no one really gives a shit about its simplicity because Sumner’s work has always been about the sum of its parts, not one great talent making up for a multitude of other deficiencies. Not only is pointing this shortcoming out a completely unnecessary dig at Sumner (and, in Bad Lieutenant’s case, Jake Evans as well), it tells all of us that have appreciated everything Sumner’s been involved with that the reviewer has completely missed the whole “arrangement + execution axis” of New Order’s brilliance.

Anyone who’s listened to New Order knows the lyrics are mostly a peripheral to the overall experience. In fact, Sumner’s unorthodox voice/delivery often creates an additional dimension to the music that enhances the meticulous arrangements and execution. I’ve often said – and my guess is almost everyone reading this article would agree – New Order are a feeling. Their music is existential. So what if Barney gets things jumbled and resorts to grade school rhymes on occasion? I can still tell what he’s trying to say regardless because the arrangements and execution of the actual music tell me exactly what I should be hearing.

With all apologies to Barney, who I’m sure puts genuine effort into writing lyrics (at least it looked that way in that Prozac documentary), lyrics to a New Order song are what dialogue is to a Stanley Kubrick film - most of the time merely complimentary and 90% of the time purely a function of the music. Kubrick, like any great visual artist, was a master at communicating feeling via image. Sumner and New Order at large are masters at communicating feeling via their command of the aural; an achievement that is much more abstract, and surely 10 times more impressive, than using rhythm as a backdrop to storytelling (one of the many reasons I avoid rap, spoken word, REM, etc with pandemic-like apprehension).

What’s funny is I thought this was common knowledge to anyone that knew fuck all about the band (e.g., critics) and their many incarnations. Yet rarely, if ever, does one see the critical mass acknowledge this fact. Apparently, if you believe what the critics say, Never Cry Another Tear suffers mightily from lyrical shortcomings.

Utter bullshit. The day Barney starts making anything other than opaque sense or writing like Morrissey is the day I set my record collection on fire.

Never Cry Another Tear sounds too much like, but only “sort of” like, New Order, but not enough like New Order given their preternatural gift of artistic advancement.

Confused? I am too.

I suppose you can have your cake and eat it too when you critique music for a living. See, on one hand, its perfectly acceptable to trash a band like U2 for deviating from their original recipe by recording Zooropa or taking that road to its logical conclusion by recording an album like Pop, thereby forcing them to abandon all creative experimentation and, as a result, back to recording stone-aged U2-by-numbers records like All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Yeah, U2 move a lot of product, sell a shitload of concert tickets and have legitimately established themselves as the elder statesmen, but for a band I don’t care for all that much, I was crushed when Bono and crew deep-sixed the experimentation of the 90’s in favor of safer waters. I was actually beginning to like them.

With New Order, and by extension here, Bad Lieutenant, it seems the opposite is true…but only at times. Since Technique, the critical word has revolved around New Order failing to maintain their "edge" and producing predictable album after predicatable album. During the Get Ready era, they were even accused of, ahem, poaching off of their past to fill in gaps that existed from a lack of ideas. This latter accusation (there’s no other word for it) has been routinely used when looking at Bad Lieutenant’s effort. In fact, Neil Ashman of Drowned In Sound actually writes a disclaimer at the beginning of his review telling us he’s not clever enough to objectively review Never Cry Another Tear, opting instead to measure it against New Order’s back catalogue . Five words came to my mind after reading said disclaimer: what a load of shit.

Most of the reviews (even the ones without disclaimers) predictably follow the same structure, basically: Never Cry Another Tear isn’t a bad record because it sounds like New Order, but it only sounds like New Order-without-the-bass and we really wish Barney would just “invent” another “sound” because he’s been part of a band that dependably did that a whopping two times in 30+ years of making music. And these are the same people that say Sumner’s lyrics are simple.

This is the deal – and, again, you already know this. New Order have always sounded like New Order because no other band in the history of recorded music has ever sounded like New Order. Yes, they evolved, and, yes, there are clear nuances between, say, Power, Corruption and Lies and Republic. That doesn’t change the fact that every New Order record still has the New Order “sound.” It doesn’t change the fact that every New Order record has an electronic component and an acoustic component and when the band is firing on all cylinders, they manage the unique feat of combining those two halves seamlessly and creating, undeniably, a sound all their own. Even in advanced age, that sound is still unique and driving. And feeling. And, yes, when you take one or two elements away, there is a certain hollowness, but that shouldn’t, and doesn’t, torpedo the rest of the effort.

The critics here are convinced that Never Cry Another Tear is, simultaneously, sort of okay because it sort of sounds like New Order but claim it would have sounded better if Hooky actually played bass but would have been even better, without Hooky, had Bad Lieutenant pulled an acid-house-style revolutionary rabbit out of their hat. And contradiction abounds.

As a great admirer of their unique art, whether it be as a collective or separate, I can still be objective and say some of this record does sound like a 10th generation New Order photocopy. But, it’s also been 26 years since Power, Corruption and Lies (the first New Order album where an identifiable course was charted...) and, by my count, Never Cry Another Tear is in actuality a 16th generation photocopy . So, should it surprise anyone that, absent Peter Hook, portions of this album sound vaguely (but not too vaguely!) like New Order? No. After 26 years, is anyone surprised that there’s a vaguely watered-down quality to the New Order-like elements? No. Does it surprise anyone that now, having cruised to the latter side of 50, Barney might actually prefer to merely refine the sound he helped propagate along with just a handful of other people? No. Is there a reason why no one is pointing any of this shit out? Yes. To put it simply, it's way to easier to peg something you can’t quite comprehend or accept on a band being lazy or boring or both – which is pretty much what every reviewer has done in Bad Lieutenant's case.

It should surprise no one that the reviews make little reference to the fact that Bad Lieutenant isn’t New Order. If more was made of this relatively simple (there’s that word again) concept, perhaps the album would have been evaluated objectively. Speaking of comparisons, non-comparisons and general vibes that would have been warranted

This is home.

In all those aforementioned references to New Order, Mr. Detritus et al somehow forget to mention the most New Order-influenced track on the entire record, “This Is Home.” More than any other track, the song structure here is classic New Order. From the opening bass chords that should instantly remind you of 1978 to the near-perfect confluence of the electronic-acoustic mix New Order own the patent on, “This Is Home” is no fuzzy photocopy. It’s a pure original, Hook or no Hook. Add in the sweeping, building final third that includes a mandatory bass solo, combined with the abrupt, hollow ending, and you’ve got what I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is one of those mysterious leftovers from the Waiting for the Sirens’ Call sessions we keep hearing about.

So why the fuck is this song not mentioned in all those ill-founded comparison arguments? I can’t be completely sure, but my guess is it has something to do with Jake Evans’ vocals…

Jake.

If there’s one thing I hate more than unjustified arguments and critiques, it’s the lazy-reviewer tactic of simple (again!) comparisons. I’m not talking about saying things like “Bad Lieutenant sound like New Order” – as I’ve already said, in a roundabout way, that’s an understandable and rather complex comparison. I’m talking more about saying things like “Jake Evans sounds like INSERT NAME OF DEEP/DRONING/HE OF THE HEART-FELT DELIVERY BRITISH CROONER OF CHOICE.” This has been a most popular way of avoiding any actual substantive evaluation of Jake Evans and his contribution to the record.

Jake does sound like Jimi Goodwin. He also sounds like Noel Gallagher. So the fuck what? It’s not his fault God blessed him with a voice whose frequency is in approximate range to another British singer that, unfortunately for Jake, has sold over 100 million records in the last 15 years. Of course, the one thing that’s lost is Jake sounds more like Jake than anyone else I could compare him to. In fact, if I was Jake I’d take those comparisons as compliments…until I realized that I sound better than either of them.

Holding these comparisons over Bad Lieutenant’s head like they’re a minus instead of a plus is ridiculous. This guy can belt. I can see why Barney referred to him as a “gifted” singer in the publicity leading up to the album’s release. Why his voice is being held against him is a mystery to me. And if you’re going to evaluate him, let’s hear why he’s allegedly not a good fit or voice instead of how singing an admittedly Gallagher-esque tune like “Head Into Tomorrow” disqualifies him from being a decent vocalist. His inclusion adds yet another dimension to the music that further separates Bad Lieutenant from New Order. It’s a shame the reviews resort to nickel and dime comparisons that tarnish his contribution.

Steve’s drumming is pedestrian.

This won’t take long because the same reviewer that made this assertion also made it a point, nay; a cornerstone of his review, to say that Bad Lieutenant is clearly a “guitar rock” band. If so, logic would dictate that on Never Cry Another Tear, the human drum-machine otherwise known as Stephen Morris would be relieved of his former duties that often required him to maintain 100 bpms over and over. In this new incarnation, of course the percussion is going to sound thin – if you drop the caveat that he used to be forced to keep up with, among other things, electronic sheep, the drumming sounds perfect. Sometimes, it’s that obvious people.

Absolutely ridiculous.

Postscript.

I hope Bad Lieutenant’s future output is reviewed with greater objectivity and, more importantly, originality. If Sumner and New Order are indeed as widely respected as described in every one of these reviews I’ve taken issue with, an unbiased ear is what they deserve the most.

Maybe Hooky will fare better upon the release of his Freebass material. If it ever comes out.

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2009