First of all, it has a great title, one that grabs you immediately even if it has only an impressionistic connection to the song itself. Then there’s the music, as propulsive, melodic and tough as anything that came out of the British New Wave era. But what ultimately makes “Love Vigilantes” one of New Order’s most memorable tracks is a story with a kind of choose-your-own-interpretation ending.
“Love Vigilantes” is the first song on New Order’s third album, 1985’s Low-Life. It’s a record that established the band’s own unique potency and helped to legitimize the quartet as its own entity separate from Joy Division, its original incarnation. The song is attributed to all four band members (Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert), although the idea and lyrics sprung mainly from singer and guitarist Sumner.
The song’s first lines set you up for a patriotic anthem, especially when heard against the backdrop of the invigorating music: “Oh I’ve just come/From the land of the sun/From a war that must be won/In the name of truth.” Still there are clues that Sumner has something else up his sleeve. For example, there’s the way that violence is juxtaposed with grace in the second verse: “With our rifles and grenades/And some help from God.” In the refrain, the soldier telling the story pulls away from his honor and duty to express what’s in his heart: “I want to see my family/My wife and child waiting for me.”
In the second verse, the soldier joyfully recounts that he has been given the opportunity to return home from the battlefield. “For my country I will die/And I will see it soon,” he promises, and the return of the refrain strengthens the listeners’ belief that a happy reunion is coming at the end of the song. But the last verse undercuts all of that and leaves us guessing.
“When I walked through the door,” Sumner sings to start the final verse. “My wife she lay upon the floor.” We soon find out why: “I saw the telegram/That said I was a brave, brave man/But that I was dead.” Suddenly the refrain holds a whole new meaning, because there’s a chance that the soldier has actually been denied the reunion that had been promised him.
That final verse leaves a lot to the imagination. Was the soldier actually dead or was the telegram in error. And was the wife simply taken off her feet by grief or was she did she commit suicide? Sumner’s own take was revealed in a 2012 interview with GQ, where he explained how he wrote the song differently than his normal process, in that he created it scratch rather than listening to a piece of music first to suggest the words. “I did that with “Love Vigilantes” where I decided to write a redneck song,” he said. “It was quite tongue-in-cheek. It was about Vietnam. It was about a soldier that came back and his wife was sent a telegram to say that he was dead.”
“You can take the ending one way or another. He’s either dead and he’s come back as a ghost and he sees her or he’s not dead and the telegram was a mistake. But his wife’s got it and killed herself.”
Still, there’s no reason you as listener can’t take the song in earnest rather than with cynicism. The one thing you can say for sure is that New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” sticks with you, whether you hear it as an over-the-top approximation of a country tearjerker, or at face value as a heartbreaking tale of war’s tangential victims.