New Order get older gracefully

New Order Reading Festival `Celebrity Skin': Hole (Geffen, CD)

The Beastie Boys were fantastic, Lee "Scratch" Perry was loopy, and Keith Flint from the Prodigy looked like Nosferatu in knitwear. But if this year's Reading Festival is remembered for anything, it'll be for the sunshine. It was the only rock festival of the summer - and I use that term loosely - which did not necessitate a wet suit, an oxygen cylinder and flippers, meaning that even if the Barron Knights had headlined, it would still have been more fun than Glastonbury.

If Reading is remembered for anything else, it'll be for the reunion of New Order - and they were pretty sunny, too. With an alarming cry of "let's rock the fucking house", Bernard Sumner set about trampling on his image as the most miserable man on Planet Pop. He punched the air, skipped on the spot in an approximation of dancing, punctuated his vocals with high-pitched whoops, and shared a brotherly handshake with Peter Hook, the bassist, after "True Faith". Apart from a warm-up gig in Manchester in July, this was New Order's first show since 1993's Reading Festival and they were as happy to be back as the crowd were to see them. The band revelled in their old material, even playing a rocked-up "Love Will Tear Us Apart" among other Joy Division songs, and producing Keith Allen from a cage to do some guest clowning on "World in Motion". You'd suspect they were imposters if it weren't for keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who maintained the demeanour of a woman halfway through her eight-hour shift behind the till at Tesco's. Some things don't change.

As tight and professional as if they'd been in a rehearsal studio for the past five years - instead of biding their time in Electronic (in Sumner's case) or in Monaco, Mrs Merton's house band and the pages of the tabloids (in Hook's case) - New Order didn't seem as if they'd been out of action. The only indication that they've been away is that, like any band who sounded futuristic in the Eighties, they now sound very Eighties and not very futuristic. The ghosts of Gary Numan and Ultravox lurked in every synthesiser bleep, and Sumner's scratchy, unrock guitar skittered across the field in U2 and Simple Minds (un)fashion.

None the less, the band still offered a vision of an alternative universe in which they didn't step aside and let the Britpop youngsters have their shot at the top. If New Order had kept going into the era of New Labour, we might now have international stars who pioneer dance beats, instead of borrowing them after the event to pep up their credibility; and a band who marry the scale of stadium rock with indie-issue introspection and melancholy. It remains to be seen how long the reunion lasts, and whether this is a vision of what might have been or what might yet be.

A group who have been absent for almost as long are Hole, but they have some good excuses. Their last album, 1994's Live Through This, was released just as their leader's husband shot himself; and their bassist, Kristin Pfaff, died two months later. You don't have to listen very carefully to their new album, Celebrity Skin, to pick up lyrics about bereavement. Kurt Cobain's suicide note said: "The worst crime is faking it ... It's better to burn out than to fade away." In "Reasons to Be Beautiful", Courtney Love argues with him: "When the fire goes out you better learn to fake / It's better to rise than fade away." What's uncharacteristic is that she addresses the topic with more positivity and tenderness than rage.

A more significant influence on the band than these deaths, perhaps, is Love's makeover as a Hollywood player. Today, fewer people know her as a rock chick than as a widow, socialite and film star (willingly in The People Vs Larry Flint, less willingly in Nick Broomfield's Kurt & Courtney documentary), and her anti-melodic punk principles now mean less to her than getting some credit in the straight world.

Celebrity Skin, then, sits at the exact mid-point between seething, spitting grunge and Californian, girl- group soft rock. Written by Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson with help from the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, the songs resemble those of Aerosmith and Fleetwood Mac, except with more attitude and crunchier basslines. "Awful", the first post-grunge pop tune to be inspired by a Dick Emery catchphrase, sounds like the Bangles. "Heaven Tonight" and "Malibu" could be smash hits for Belinda Carlisle. Indeed, at least six out of the 12 tracks here could be smash hits for Hole. Even when you consider how much easier on the ear Live Through This was than Hole's debut, Pretty on the Inside, it's still a shock to catch yourself humming along to this radio-friendly shiny metal.

The transition isn't perfectly smooth. When Love is called upon to sing instead of shout, her witchy, abrasive voice is exposed as being gratingly flat, and the odd bit of lead guitar would have made for a welcome contrast with the chugging rhythm parts. Even so, no album so far this year has been more obviously destined to sell millions. Prepare for Love to conquer all.

`Celebrity Skin' is released tomorrow.

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