While Substance presents a sizeable collection of singles, there are many omissions and differences to be found from the original single releases:
"Temptation" and "Confusion" were re-recorded in 1987 specially for Substance and none of the original versions appear.
"Ceremony" is the version recorded after Gillian Gilbert joined the band. The original trio version – the first New Order recording following the dissolution of Joy Division — would not be re-released until the Singles collection in 2005 and the re-release of Movement in 2008.
"Cries and Whispers" is incorrectly labelled as "Mesh" on all versions, and only on the cassette version does the original "Mesh" actually appear, itself mistitled as "Cries and Whispers" (to add to the confusion, the iTunes Store release, based from the CD version, labels the "Cries and Whispers" as "Mesh (Cries and Whispers)").
"Sub-culture" is labelled as "Subculture", and "The Perfect Kiss" is labelled as "Perfect Kiss".
The standard tape version, due to the extra space befitting the format, also contains extra tracks in the form of "Dub-vulture", "Shellcock", and "Bizarre Dub Triangle", as well as the actual "Mesh". Only on the limited edition cassette version does "True Dub" appear, as the last track on the second tape. On all cassette versions, "Murder" is after "Thieves Like Us" on the first cassette, whereas on the CD/DAT versions it appears on the second half of the album.
Substance was released in August 1987 by Factory Records. According to Sputnikmusic, it showcased New Order's mix of post-punk and dance styles with 12-inch singles remixed for club play and became the band's "most popular, well known, highly rated [record] and arguably their most influential". In a contemporary review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau said that the album's vinyl edition showcases New Order's discipline and chemistry as a band whose musical style is improved upon by the 12-inch mixes: "Pure rhythm machine with an ironically mysterious overlay of schlocky melody to help it go down, this album is a case study in sensationalist art, and I say the world is better for it." Additionally, he called Substance "sublime" and "a revelation" in his column for Playboy. Christgau named it the seventh best album of 1987 in his list for the annual Pazz & Jop critics poll.
In 2003, Substance was ranked number 363 on Rolling Stone 's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. According to the magazine, it had sold over one million copies by that time. In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that the album revealed the band's strength as songwriters with a few of the best pop songs from the 1980s represented by "Blue Monday", "Bizarre Love Triangle", "Temptation", and "True Faith". According to Erlewine, it has been argued that the 12-inch mixes on Substance "represent New Order's most groundbreaking and successful work, since they expanded the notion of what a rock & roll band, particularly an indie rock band, could do." Joe Gross wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) that the album is "pure pleasure" and serves as "a guidebook to 1980s pop", along with Prince's Purple Rain (1984) and Madonna's 1990 compilation The Immaculate Collection.Slant Magazine's Sal Cinquemani was less enthusiastic and said that the album is "undeniably a product of its time". In 2005, Will Hermes included Substance in his "definitive guide" to dance rock for Spin magazine.
Substance 1989 is the video version of Substance that first appeared in 1989 on VHS; it was released on LaserDisc in Japan in 1991.
The cover is similar to the LP, except "1987" is replaced by "1989" (though the on-screen title is Substance 1983–88) and different background colours are used; the Factory/Qwest release has a grey background, the Japanese VHS release, blue and the LaserDisc, turquoise. The video includes linking sequences which are animated to the accompaniment of instrumental sections from "The Happy One", an otherwise unreleased track from the Technique sessions.