Certain Songs #1311: New Order – “Age of Consent”

Album: Power, Corruption and Lies
Year: 1983

At some point in 1983, I wrote that “Age of Consent” was the greatest song that any of these musicians had yet come up with — better than “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or “Atmosphere” or “Ceremony” or “Temptation” — and 35 years later, I’m not sure that I was wrong, because it’s a complete and total banger start to finish.

Power Corruption & Lies was where I got on the New Order bandwagon for good, at least album-wise, and it all stemmed from this amazing song.

“Age of Consent” opens with the sound of Peter Hook’s bass, playing a riff that he rates as his all-time greatest, and with Stephen Morris almost instantly right there with him, it has both punk rock intensity and a dance hall feel — of course, right — but what it also has is a fully confident Bernard Sumner on vocals. And even more importantly, a fully emotive Bernard Sumner on vocals.

Won’t you please let me go
These words lie inside they hurt me so

And I’m not the kind that likes to tell you
Just what I want to do
I’m not the kind that needs to tell you
Just what you want me to

As sung at nearly the top of his register, that chorus was a quantum leap for Sumner. It was clear that he had seized upon the frontman role and was working his ass off to develop a vocal style that was as unique as the music his band was creating. But also a much-needed contrast: with the exception of Peter Hook’s basslines, which meandered every which way, the rest of the music that New Order was creating was cold and computerized, and the tension between the human and the machine aspects was what drove most of my favorite New Order songs for the rest of the decade.

And in fact, looking back on it, those vocals one of the reasons that I’ve never glommed onto “Blue Monday” in the same way I did the other songs from that period: for all of its ground-breaking music, I find the flat, affectless vocals Sumner performs in “Blue Monday” kinda boring. I prefer my androids to have some emotion. “Blue Monday” is a amazing recording, but I’ve always been meh on it as a song.

And I’m not the kind that likes to tell you
Just what you want me to
You’re not the kind that needs to tell me
About the birds and the bees

Meanwhile, back in “Age of Consent,” there’s a long instrumental break after the second chorus. While Stephen Morris and Peter Hook hold down the fort, Gillian Gilbert goes forth with a majestic synth counterpoint, followed immediately by Sumner doing one of my all-time favorite tricks: the guitar solo that reproduces the melody line of the verse. He does that a couple of times, his guitar breaking up and echoing, and then when he gets to the chorus the second time around, he switches from the notes to a furious rhythmic strumming, and it is both utterly shocking and completely necessary.

After the final chorus, he then lets out a little whoop, and drops into his lower register, and sadly sings:

I’ve lost you
I’ve lost you
I’ve lost you
I’ve lost you
I’ve lost you
I’ve lost you

All the while punctuating those with more little whoops here and there and even a “Temptation” call-back of multiple “who-hoo-hoos” before letting Gilbert have one last series of synth washes before “Age of Consent” glides to its ending.

If “Ceremony” was the sound of New Order moving on spiritually and “Temptation” was the sound of New Order moving on musically, then “Age of Consent” was the sound of New Order truly becoming New Order: a band that could effortlessly fuse cold-hearted electronic music with warm-hearted rock ‘n’ roll, and create something that — once again — was totally and utterly new under the sun.

“Age of Consent”

“Age of Consent” performed live in Spain, 1984

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