In spring 1991 the “post-modern music” segment of my top 40 radio station played Enigma’s “Mea Culpa,” Elvis Costello’s “The Other Side of Summer,” Daniel Ash’s “This Love,” and Electronic’s “Get The Message” back to back. I own the tape where I recorded the sequence. I loved “Get The Message” for its shufflebeat, an acoustic guitar strum hook so basic that I’m amazed no one before Johnny Marr had played it, and the winsome vocals of Bernard Sumner, whom I’d previously heard on the previous spring’s “Getting Away With It,” a Neil Tennant collaboration that actually grazed the American top forty. My friend Greg bought the eponymous Electronic album a couple of months later. I don’t think I’ve come as close to wearing out a tape.
Released a week before the start of summer, Electronic sounds like it has absorbed and reflected the warmth of a hundred sun-kissed afternoons on terraces with cool drinks. It boasts a kick-off-your-sandals gaiety. New Order and the Smiths were never like this. Every song has a filigree to remember it by, often substituting for the guitar solo we’d expect from Marr: the acid house sequencer breakdown duetting with keyboards in “Reality”; the whistling in “Idiot Country”; the submarine effects in “The Patience of a Saint.” “Some Distant Memory” has two: the sampled church bells between chorus and second verse, and, heartbreakingly, Helen Powell’s oboe, summoning a tangible sense of loss inextricable from the beauty of the memory. Obsessed with Black music, Marr eschews showmanship for rhythm licks he absorbed from Jimmy Nolen and Carlos Alomar. For all the shit Sumner’s gotten for his lyrics, the years between Technique (1989) and Republic (1993) found him reaching his peak: he could sing smoothly and on pitch and often the words cohered into sentences. Found poetry like “Better than to live than to know” sat beside doggerel like “We both need each other like sister and brother.” Sumner was capable of genuine inspiration too: “I don’t know if we could get lost in a city this size” is a banger of an opening line. What fantastic arrogance, I thought.
The gateway of gateway albums, Electronic may not be my favorite record, but it’s the most instructional: the charisma of blankness, the functionality of lyrics, the fungibility of guitars and synths. Lest I create the impression of Anglophilia, I’ll note that Bernard Sumner sings like an ordinary bloke who got lucky, not like a Morrissey who thinks England is his and owes him a living. That’s why New Order matter to me like The Smiths don’t.