This is the sixth post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
“Bizarre Love Triangle” ultimately became one of New Order’s signature songs, though at the time of its release, it failed to chart in the US or the UK. The song didn’t make it onto the Billboard Hot 100 until 1994, when “The Best of New Order” was released. The keyboard-heavy song was ripe for remixing, which is why there are multiple versions, including a 12-inch version by legendary producer Shep Pettibone.
According to New Order bassist Peter Hook, the song was written with more attention paid to its sound than its lyrics. In an interview with Songfacts, Hook said that when the band recorded its fourth studio album, “Brotherhood,” its members conceived of the two sides of the album as two parts with distinct styles, “the first being quite rock-y acoustic tracks, and the second being more electronic-based.” They wanted to start that second side with a distinct song to set the tone, so they quickly tweaked a song they had been playing on the road. That song had been called “Broken Promises” or “Broken Guitar Strings” at various times, but when the band released it on “Brotherhood,” it became “Bizarre Love Triangle.” “We used to take our song titles from many different places: books, TV, anything we saw that sounded good we would write down and use at a later date,” Hook told Songfacts. “That’s why a lot of our songs have titles that are completely separate to the lyrics: ‘BLT,’ ‘Blue Monday,’ ‘True Faith.'”
That the lyrics of “Bizarre Love Triangle” were an afterthought might come as a surprise to anyone whoever thought of the song as a break-up song. Over my college career, the original and multiple cover versions appeared on multiple mix CDs I made, whether I was making them for myself or friends. It thought of it as a flexible song that expressed feelings relatable to anyone who has struggled with break-ups, unrequited love, or any variation of romance gone bad.
The song’s versatility lies in that there are no details that flesh out any kind of story. There are only abstractions, mainly feeling confused, conflicted, sad and loyal. Those are so vague that you can apply them to any troubled relationship, which is precisely why this is my go-to song when making a mix in response to a break-up. The details of who did what to whom are irrelevant. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. It doesn’t even have to be about a love triangle. The only thing about the song that suggests a love triangle is the title itself, but the lyrics are ambiguous enough that some people have suggested it’s not about a triangle between three people, but rather a triangle between two people and an addiction. But given Hook’s admission that the titles didn’t always match the songs, this song might not have been inspired by any kind of love triangle at all. Hook has said that drug addiction “is not something that any of our lyrics ever touched on,” but the lyrics of “Bizarre Love Triangle” are a bare canvas that allows you to project your own feelings and fit it to your experiences. Addiction might not have been the intent of the song, but it certainly fits the lyrics and the mournful vocals.
The lyrics are the centerpiece of the stripped down acoustic version released by Australian band Frente! in 1994. It feels so bare compared to the drum machines and synthesizers of the original, which is why it’s that much more raw and intimate. Angie Hart’s voice sounds so tender, but rueful enough that you don’t think of her as completely innocent. Hart must have been either 21 or 22 when Frente!’s version was recorded. Hart’s sweet voice, with a barely noticeable rasp, indicates a sad sense of regret. Frente!’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” was released as a single in 1994, in between the band’s two LPs. It’s a shame that they didn’t record more, because I would listen to a full album of Angie Hart singing acoustic covers.
French cover band Nouvelle Vague made a career out of reimagining classic songs in a ’60s lounge style. Its version of “Bizarre Love Triangle” starts out sounding similar to Frente’s in that acoustic guitars serve as the backdrop for a pretty female voice. But Nouvelle Vague’s version sounds like it’s at the same tempo as New Order’s version, if not a little faster. As the song progresses, the band sprinkles hand claps and whistles while adding a second vocal track. The classic chorus has been reworked to fit the bossa nova arrangement, so the pauses come in different (albeit refreshingly fun) places. At the end, “say the words that I can’t say” is repeated several times in several styles. At first, it sounds like a like a commandment, but then later, is sung like it’s a plea or a prayer.
Industrial rock band Stabbing Westward covered the song for the soundtrack for teen movie parody, “Not Another Teen Movie.” Frente! and Nouvelle Vague removed the iconic synth line, but Stabbing Westward doubled down on that riff, adding crunchy guitars and much more focus on the drum machines. Like many vocals on punk/pop covers, singer Christopher Hall’s voice sounds scratchy and emotional compared to Bernard Sumner’s and Hook’s voices. But hey, the term “emo” wasn’t coined for nothing. While the New Order version presents the song as a regret, the Stabbing Westward version presents it as a complaint. The cover fits the vibe of the soundtrack, but the vocals and guitars feel too a smidgeon too loud and forceful for what the song should be.
Rookie of the Year’s version sounds like a cover of Frente!’s version in that it takes the same stripped down acoustic approach. That’s how many of Rookie of the Year’s songs sound, making the band sound softer than its pop punk peers. It’s not an offensive version in any way. Ryan Dunson’s voice is pleasant enough and his guitar sounds pretty. But it’s maybe too muted. There’s no heartache or pain in Dunson’s voice. It sounds like a song you’d hear at an all ages show at a coffee shop in the suburbs rather than something you’d listen to after your heart broken.
Apostle of Hustle’s funky take on the song is memorable for how layered it is. The track starts with bluesy guitars hip-hop-inspired drumbeats before the slow, distant vocals appear. The iconic synth line from the original New Order version comes and goes throughout the song, but it’s played in a style reminiscent of theme songs from 8-bit Nintendo games. The guitar distortion that remains throughout most of the song is more funky than irritating, giving the song an unpolished texture. It’s not a song you’d hear to get ready for a night out, but it’s a song you might play after you and your buddies have had a few beers and start playing weird songs for each other. This would be an excellent weird song to play for your buddies after a few beers.
Filipino rock band The Speaks recorded “Bizarre Love Triangle” as a loud metal song. It begins with slow, ominous guitars, with singer Rafael Toledo singing as if he’s in a Creed tribute band. The guitars and drums kick in, and that’s when Toledo screams in a way that sounds like he’s been gargling razor blades.
In May 2015, former Killers frontman Brandon Flowers performed a cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” with Bernard Sumner at a concert in Manchester. Before Flowers brought Sumner onstage, he explained how New Order influenced him as a child growing up in rural Utah. Flowers ultimately got to record with his idols, but it’s apparent when watching him sing “Bizarre Love Triangle” with Sumner that Flowers the singer reverted to Flowers the fanboy. A few times during the song, he has a wide grin on his face, as if he’s shocked that this was actually happening.
As is the case with many popular songs, there are the other requisite style versions, such as the country version and the slowed down reggae version. These days, stripping a song down to acoustic guitars or pianos is a gimmick that’s grown very tired, but the Frente! version preceded that. It doesn’t sound like a cover that was done in an acoustic style just to do it in that style. The aesthetics of that cover are secondary to Hart’s voice, making it a perfect cover. A gimmick can get you to listen once, but a style that is appropriate for the story that the artist is trying to tell will get you to listen repeatedly.