Age is a horrible thing. Most classic American literature will argue otherwise, but let’s be honest… nobody likes growing up. It’s a shitty deal. Your knees ache, your back starts giving out, friends leave and come back (only to leave again), and television starts to look really, really weird. For musicians still “kicking it,” age is even harder to accept — just ask Gene Simmons. Rock shows are less about rock and more about pizazz, dusty songs are the only things fans want to hear, and drugs are actually dangerous. What’s worse, the idea of experimenting or pushing forward comes off as hokey. Sure, there are exceptions (e.g. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tupac Shakur), but, for the most part, it’s a dog eat dog world and typically you’ll find these past favorites either at your local state fair or opening up for Aerosmith and/or Kid Rock.
While a different breed altogether, Bad Lieutenant does show its rings. It’s hard to believe, especially if you’ve lately been popping in that Control DVD of yours, but Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris are both now over 50. Yes, these days the troubled young adults of Joy Division are dealing less with disorders and isolation and more with mid-life crises and an overpopulated market. But, that’s not really new to their respected fanbase. Unlike most acts of the ’70s and ’80s, both Sumner and Morris have managed to keep things hip and relevant — after all, just look at their hellishly challenging track record. When the duo’s iconic frontman Ian Curtis took his own life, everyone thought the party was over, yet New Order spawned from the ashes and found even more success. This success never slowed, either. Hell, even their last record, 2005’s Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, gushed of new found creativity and ingenuity, charming both critics and fans alike. So, with that in mind, when news surfaced of the two returning with a new name (Morris isn’t actually a member of the band, however), some familiar faces (Phil Cunningham, who last played guitar and keyboards with New Order), some other familiar faces (bassist Alex James of Blur, on a few tracks), and a new debut album, Never Cry Another Tear, to kick around… it all seemed pretty exciting.
Lead single “Sink or Swim” would have you believe that, too. While cluttered with some cringe-worthy lyrics (“How many times before you slip?/You made a wager with a kiss”), the radio number and album opener is nothing but enchanting and heartwarming. There’s something about the jangly guitar riff that seems culled from 80’s favorites The Church and the lyrical hook of “Hey, what you doing…” that just hits all the right places. It’s fast, it’s bouncy, and it’s the perfect hit to follow up on. However, the rest of the ensemble’s debut never does.
That’s not to say it’s a horrible record. Not quite. There’s just a lot here that doesn’t work — and usually in parts. “Running Out Of Luck” sports a running bassline and a decent melody, but the touchy-feely guitar lines and sappy lyrics (“And I’d be right there by your side/like your shadow”) leave it sounding like a soggy homage to U2 or Coldplay or even worse, The Fray. The same goes for “These Changes”, which storms ahead via piano, layered vocals, and a marching drum beat. There are hooks, sure, but they feel borrowed rather than created. At times, this “borrowing” becomes just downright blatant. Digital powerhouse “Dynamo” is a key example. Working off of the processed organ notes that once hallmarked The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the minimalistic guitar chimes in ever so lightly, nearly robbing The Edge of his post-2000 work, and by the song’s end, Sumner sounds like he’s karaoke-ing Bono. Textually, it sounds bad, but the truth (and twist) is, it’s still pretty catchy… just as long as you can come to terms with those less than savory gripes.
It’s when the band’s pulling from their own vices that things feel right. “Twist of Fate” is an odd amalgamation of all that is Sumner and Morris. The bass-laden drive, the atmospheric swirls, and the chorus all could have gently been laid down on a New Order tune, but the nervous opening guitar riff or the sharp bass turns that pop in every so often recall past Joy Division classics (specifically “No Love Lost”). “Poisonous Intent” is all New Order. Eighties enthusiasts that still wish they could be Andrew McCarthy or those that act like they’re living life vicariously through a Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney novel will revel in the snazzy synths, the hip bopping bass, and the smooth crooning of Sumner. Close your eyes and you’re likely to find yourself in a chic New York club, preferably on a Monday morning at 5 a.m., asking yourself, “What happened to Sunday?” The same could be said of the hopeful, dreamy cadence of “Walk On Silver Water”, only shift it up a decade and switch it to Los Angeles. It’s all familiar territory.
But that’s a part of the problem, too. When they’re really gelling, they’re only pulling out past tricks. There’s nothing new here to find. When the group’s expanding their sound, they’re sticking to popular new influences or just sounding downright bland. So bland, in fact, that the album’s last three tracks — “Shine Like The Sun”, “Runaway”, and “Head Into Tomorrow” — blend into one acoustic jog that’s neither interesting nor revelatory. Though, in hindsight, that’s exactly what people might expect from any musician swimming around the latter half of their career — only this team seemed primed to do just the opposite of that (probably because they’ve always surprised us). So, to paraphrase Sumner here, are they going to sink or swim? For now, neither. While Never Cry Another Tear isn’t the strong debut needed to propel these guys forward, there’s enough here to keep Bad Lieutenant treading water for just a bit longer.