Not the sort of live album that one would expect from a band with New Order’s legacy.
New Order is at an interesting point in their career. They show little sign of slowing down creatively and still seem invigorated by their new material, but they are willing to reconsider their past, incorporating old New Order songs and even Joy Division material in their live sets. On the surface, their newest live album—credited to both New Order and visual artist Liam Gillick—would be the ultimate look back: the album, culled from a five-night performance recorded during the Manchester International Festival, takes place at the Old Granada Studios in Manchester where the band made their TV debut in 1978. Yet, So It Goes isn’t just a nostalgia trip through post-punk Manchester. While New Order are willing to look back at their past, they also present new interpretations of both old classics and deep cuts from their immense catalog.
Crucially, the performance recorded here isn’t just a typical New Order show. For this performance, the band not only brought in Gillick to create a new visual experience, but they also incorporated a 12-piece synthesizer orchestra as a way to present their material in a different format. As a result, the show has the distinct feeling of a deliberately staged performance, with the band jumping between songs to create a certain mood for their audience. This definitely isn’t a case of New Order just going through the hits; in fact, there aren’t many hits on So It Goes. Aside from run-throughs of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “Sub-Culture” and “Shellshock,” the band avoid some of the more obvious crowd-pleasers in their discography, and even the ones that make the cut are presented in unique ways that deftly incorporate the orchestra. Otherwise, the band present album tracks from the likes of Technique and Republic in a way that grounds them in a more modern arrangement while still respecting their original intent.
If there are crowd-pleasers to be found in this set, they come in the form of the band’s renditions of Joy Division material. New Order have been doing this for some time, and while their revisits of the songs they wrote with Ian Curtis don’t have the same ghoulish feel that one gets when seeing former bassist Peter Hook’s nostalgia trips, there’s always something a bit off about how these songs are presented. The crowd seems to be into it, particularly with the live debut of Unknown Pleasures opener “Disorder,” but the brighter arrangements given to these songs alter them in a way that fans may be reluctant to accept. This is to say nothing of Bernard Sumner’s vocal performance on these songs, which never ceases to feel strange no matter how many times New Order play Joy Division songs. In fact, Sumner is arguably the weakest aspect of So It Goes in that his vocal performances can be rough to the point of distraction. Granted, nobody ever really thought that Bernard Sumner was the best singer of all time, but his voice has become increasingly flat over the years, and that is only accentuated in a live setting. At times, he struggles to rise above the orchestra and the rest of the band. If only time was as kind to Bernard Sumner’s vocal chords as it has been to New Order’s oeuvre.
Even so, New Order deserve credit for creating something different with So It Goes. For all its weaknesses, it’s not the sort of live album that one would expect from a band with New Order’s legacy, and credit can be given to them for refusing to just shut up and play the hits. The album is arguably friendlier for longtime fans; relatively recent converts may struggle to get into exactly what the band is doing here. Otherwise, So It Goes is yet another interesting detour in a career that has had more than a fair share of them.