“Regret,” from the 1993 New Order album Republic.
Tension, cool riff, fun bass.
(4 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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Music critics have been at work since (at least) the days of Bach and Beethoven. Three hundred years later, their place in society is still debated, discussed, and defended. While I love reading reviews and opinions on music, I’ve always found it silly to think that a writer can state, fairly and objectively, that a piece of music is “good” or “bad.” It’s ridiculous that someone can pompously name himself “Dean of America’s Rock Critics[ref]By the way, as I argued at length when writing about Billy Joel, I truly believe that most critics are failures, creatively, who turn to criticism to soothe their egos. I learned from Christgau’s Wikipedia page that this is true about him. As I suspected.[/ref],” and folks just follow along as if his opinion (and it is an opinion) means more than any other schlub’s out there. As Emeritus Professor of Music at McMaster University Alan Walker wrote:
[I]t is difficult to show that a value judgment can stand for anything that is even remotely true about music, as opposed to standing for something that is merely a personal whim on the part of the critic …[ref]He goes on to neatly make a case for why it is an important effort nonetheless. I, however, have deftly trimmed his complex, multi-part essay down to a snippet of a sentence so as to make it appear that he thinks the entire enterprise is bullshit.[/ref]
It’s simply impossible to appreciate music outside of the context of your own experiences. To me, music IS a personal experience. If music writing isn’t based on one’s intimate connections with it, the opinion isn’t worthwhile. The writer may as well simply assess a piece of sheet music.
So I say, unequivocally and proudly, that I love New Order’s “Regret” because it reminds me of a great time in my life. Its lyrical tension between aspiration and apprehension captures the essence of my outlook in the summer of ’93. I like the riff and the bass and drums, too. It’s a good-sounding, catchy song. But it’s Bernard Sumner’s lyrics and delivery that really resonate.
The song opens with Gillian Gilbert’s shimmering synth chords, with a sample of Sumner’s guitar riff dropped on top. It’s a catchy, strummed, syncopated riff, but as a sample it sounds clipped and robotic. It’s a duality that mirrors the song, and it drew me in the first time I heard it. It was spring, 1993, in a bank parking lot in San Rafael, CA. I’d arrived a few weeks earlier as a 25-year old, after a 2800-mile drive from my childhood home.
At about 0:13, Stephen Morris’s drums crash in and the treble-y bass line from Peter Hook starts driving the song. For a long time “Regret” was the only New Order song I liked. I found them to be too synth-y and drum-programmy. Then I realized that drummer Morris is often playing drums, but is so precise and fast that it only sounds programmed! (Sometimes they are programmed.) This made me listen to them more closely, and now I like several of their songs. Also, as a bass player myself, I love Hook’s penchant for playing lead bass. He’s truly an excellent, unique bassist.
The band plays through the verse, and Sumner’s syncopated strumming sounds great through all the chord changes. Then his lyrics start. Having left everything behind, I totally bought in right away: “Maybe I’ve forgotten/ The name and the address/ Of everyone I’ve ever known/ There’s nothing I regret.” It’s only one of many lines that spoke to my new life as a transplant, wondering if landing in a faraway place with no job, no friends, and no plan was such a great idea. I told myself I didn’t regret anything just to stay afloat.
That introductory guitar sample hits at the end of every verse, leading into the chorus (1:06), and it lifts my spirits every time. Sumner’s voice isn’t powerful, but the melody in the chorus just begs a sing-along. “I would like a place/ I could call my own,” he sings. In more ways than one that’s the sentiment of anyone’s Big Move. The lyric “Wake up every day/ That would be a start” also resonated. My depression at the time brought with it several days spent lying in bed.
But the song isn’t sad and dreary! Morris plays ahead of the beat, with a danceable hi-hat shaking throughout. Hook’s lead bass line is sticky behind that upbeat, winding chorus melody. Sumner sounds a bit tired, a bit hopeful – like any human facing life and getting through the day. Some of the words are dark, but they’re set against this happy music – a damned pleasing juxtaposition. That balance is maintained all through the song.
The lyrics evoke both the excitement and anxiety of my first few weeks in Cali. So many lines connected with me. “Have a conversation on the telephone,” describes virtually every conversation I had. “You used to be a stranger/ Now you are mine.” Anyone who I met a second time fit this bill – including the beautiful young woman Julia, to whom I’m still married. “I was a short fuse/ Burning all the time” was how I felt before I decided to leave home. “You may think that I’m out of hand/ That I’m naive, I’ll understand/ On this occasion it’s not true/ Look at me, I’m not you.” As a small-town kid, this quatrain summarizes the entirety of my decision to get in my 1985 VW Jetta and get the fuck outta Dodge.
To me, “Regret” is an uplifting song, one I never grow tired of. Sure, Sumner’s lyrical coda sticks a pin in the positive thoughts generated by the catchy melody, cool riffs and hopeful lyrics: “Just wait ’til tomorrow/ I guess that’s what they all say/ Just before they fall apart.” Damn, Bernard, I was just feeling like getting out of bed! But that’s okay – overall the song retains its perfect tension and leaves me inspired. It’s a tremendous song, emotionally complex yet fun.
The band shot a video for it on a Southern California beach with David Hasselhoff, as a tie-in to the TV show Baywatch. It sort of encapsulates the song: the juxtaposition of carefree, seashore frolickers and the pale, trouser-clad band members, the most out-of-place beach-goers since The Munsters.
I think you have to take some chances in life, then accept the good with the bad. We all just have to make the best of it. If we can do so with few regrets, maybe we’ll end up happy. It’s been a long time since I made that move, and the only regret I carry about it today is New Order’s “Regret.”