Music while I work: ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’​ by New Order is my go to album

I like to listen to music in the background whilst I work. Previously, my preference was to work in silence, but while home-working during lockdown, I’ve found some stubbornly challenging periods to get concentrated and stay motivated, so I’ve since reconsidered my thinking on the powers of music for improving my working environment. 

Music isn’t the only answer, and it may just be a placebo, but it’s more than a metaphor; music can be a literal catalyst to help us tune into our highest frequency focus. I’ve been reflecting that much of my time over recent months has been spent with music playing in my ears, thanks to those air pods. I have been using music as the backing soundtrack to my work.  Previously, I’d honoured silence as an art form, a fully curated experience, so why was my music now so important to my work?

The research shows that my new ‘music whilst you work’ habit can be beneficial, with music offering a range of benefits when it comes to productivity, creativity, concentration and mood. Note that many of these benefits are interrelated, for example, when music improves my mood, I feel that improves my concentration, and consequently performance. So, what’s on my work music playlist? There was one album I played several times last week.

It was Power, Corruption & Lies, the second LP from New Order, released on 2 May 1983 by Factory Records. It represents the bands full transition from Joy Division, showcasing a style that established the band as global influencers for the next thirty years with their trademark sound.

After their frontman Ian Curtis took his own life, the remaining members of Joy Division had to decide how to pursue their musical career while grieving for a friend.  Forming New Order, their 1981 debut album Movement sounded like a natural continuation of Joy Division’s sound, but all of this was to change after they paid a visit to New York where they took a shine to the downtown club culture.

The album is a remarkable declaration of independence, gentle and melodic in its ambient electronic rhythms, incessant in the looping style of song structure combing drums, bass and guitars with electronic synthesisers. I think it’s their best record ever, the sound of a band coming out of the shadows, retaining some of the attitude and focus of older days, but also embracing happiness and a whole new world of sequencers. The record was named after the graffiti that artist Gerhard Richter, a contemporary German artist, spray painted on the exterior of the Kunsthalle art museum in Hamburg, during an exhibition in 1981. 

Peter Saville’s iconic design for the album cover had a colour-based code to represent the band’s name and the title of the album, but they were not actually written on the sleeve itself although the catalogue number FACT 75 does appear on the top-right corner. The decoder for the code was featured prominently on the back cover of the album and can also be seen on the Blue Monday single.

The cover artwork is a reproduction of the painting A Basket of Roses by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour which is part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection. At the gallery Saville picked up a postcard with Fantin-Latour’s painting, and his girlfriend mockingly asked him if he was going to use it for the cover. Saville realised it was a great idea, that the flowers suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives. They’re seductive.

The opening track, Age of Consent, opens with one of Peter Hook’s most joyful bass lines, The Village is similarly blissfully innocent and downright winsome, bubbling over with simple, major chords. Also, there are few lyrics as genuinely lovely as: Our love is like the flowers, The rain, the sea and the hours. The ghost of Ian Curtis lingers, nevertheless. We All Stand has moodiness and melancholia, set against a slow loping rhythm underscored by doom-tinged piano. and Ultraviolence could be from Closer.

And then, like a glorious rainbow, at the start of side two comes Your Silent Face, an elegiac masterpiece reminiscent of Kraftwerk. A synthesiser melody, then a melancholy melodica. Gillian Gilbert’s electronic orchestrations perfectly simple, Bernhard Sumner’s ruminations are cryptic at best, Hook’s bass becomes lead guitar, Stephen Morris’ drumming becomes the fully electronic beat box human. Even though the lyrics are far from a match to anything penned by Curtis, there are few songs that sound so transcendent and carry so much emotion. Here is no hearing or breathing, no movements, no colours, just silence – and then in contrast You caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?

And Leave Me Alone works exquisitely as an album ender because all those moments of rigour in the rhythm and cheer in the guitars all come together, the bass still underpinning everything, and sending it all off with a surge. It has its own lyric concerned with not always wanting to say what’s on one’s mind, with music just as immediate tension. Great track.

Power, Corruption & Lies is when New Order stopped being Joy Division and found a new direction through the means of technology. Obviously many bands were influenced by Kraftwerk, but then New Order brought their northern, Mancunian energy to it. It’s like dancing in the rain.  Peter Hook’s leading basslines, Bernard Sumner’s plaintive vocals, and Stephen Morris’ point-perfect drum fills are the human element to the synthesiser sound – the new, shining light of Gillian Gilbert.

It’s such an innovative and unusual record from an innovative and unusual band. When you go back to it, you realise that they were pioneering in combining melancholic, thoughtful, lyrics with the alien sound of synthesizers and the pulse of dance music and the darkness of where they’d come from with Joy Division. It’s a strange hybrid, I remember first listening to it and being quite taken aback. It’s a deep record, there’s a sense of stark European futurism meeting English romanticism. It is arguably the most pivotal release in their entire canon and one of the great pioneering albums of the 80s.

So this was my Music While You Work. If you love listening to music, you’re in good company. Charles Darwin once remarked, If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to listen to some music at least once every week. So, what are the benefits I experienced last week from listening to Power, Corruption & Lies?

Music makes you happier Research shows that when you listen to music you like, your brain releases dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. I definitely experienced this. I have go-to tracks when I need an emotional boost. Music simply uncovers what is there, stirring your emotions, running around waking them all up. A rebirth of sorts.

Music enhances performance Psychology Professor Marcelo Bigliassi found that runners who listened to their favourite music completed their run faster than runners who ran without music. If you want to take your productivity up a notch, listen to songs that inspire you. I definitely have some ‘go faster’ tracks. Music to me is one of the key breaths of life. I listen to music so I can hear myself alive.

Music lowers stress Listening to music you enjoy decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, counteracting the effects of feeling worked up. We all have deadlines, but to stay calm and healthy during a day when you’re ‘back-to-back’, play a tune. Be sure to sing along and tap your feet to the beat to get the maximum healing benefit.  I think any time I’ve ever got down or ever felt low, the one thing that picks me up from that is my music.  

Music elevates your mood I do enjoy working on my own. I love not being interrupted, by myself listening to music, getting stuff done. Soothing jangled nerves is one thing, raising sagging spirits another. Music can make us feel happy, energetic, and alert. There are many great songs to sing along to that make you more positive. The idea of music having a use goes back centuries. The beginnings of written-down music was the liturgy, and obviously that has a connection with the idea of a meditative state. So, music can really be useful in that way.

Music increases verbal intelligence Music is to the soul what words are to the mind – Johnny Marr. After only one month of music lessons (in rhythm, pitch, melody and voice), a study at York University showed that 90% of participant had a significant increase in verbal intelligence. Researcher Sylvain Moreno suggests that the music training had a ‘transfer effect’ which enhanced the ability to understand words and explain their meaning. In my experience, recalling memorable lyrics has improved my communication skills.

Plato had it right when he said Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul. No matter where you’re at, music can improve the quality of your working life in so many ways. Robert Browning wrote that He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once. Tolstoy explained that Music is the shorthand of emotion. Human warmth can blunt many woes, and as Shakespeare proclaimed, If music be the food of love, play on.

I know now that listening to music whilst working can lift me out of a rut, trigger a new idea and inspire me to just graft a little further – it is a remedy, a tonic for the ear. This is one way I’ve been thinking about solo home working, helped in the moment by music. Very often we go through life without thinking about that moment. We talk about mindfulness but we’re not very mindful, well I’m not. Try listening to music whilst you work, it’s been a revelation for me.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for New Order their most pivotal album is immune to the passing of time and has such an interference of others such that, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time for mankind, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Age of Consent.

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