Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

There are some albums that just feel sacrilegious to review, and both of Joy Division‘s fall comfortably into that category. There really isn’t much that you can say that hasn’t already been said, but it celebrates its fortieth anniversary this week, and so it seems a good time to challenge yourself and give it a go. Let’s put it on and try to listen with fresh ears, and see where it takes us.

It opens with Disorder, which may or may not be one of Ian Curtis‘s finest moments, but it definitely gives you a pretty solid introduction to the group and what they’re trying to do. More punk than some of their songs, it’s a strong, emotional opener.

In common with all of Joy Division‘s releases, there are no singles on here, so now, forty years on, the album’s structure seems a little unusual. The dark, grungy Day of the Lords is the second track, right where most albums would put their prime single. It’s beautifully miserable in the way that Curtis so quickly mastered, with typically dark and cheerless lyrics. Where will it end?

Joy Division were right at the start of their chart career at this point, having no singles under their belt, and just a handful of recordings on compilations. That career was, of course, tragically short – this may have been their first album, but Curtis had less than a year to live before his suicide in May 1980. If you include New Order‘s subsequent decades of success, there is a clear progression of sound, but without that, there’s nothing raw or immature about this – this is Joy Division‘s sound

Candidate is a softer, less accessible, shorter piece that fits perfectly without challenging the listener unnecessarily. In a way, every Joy Division track has its challenges – many of their songs are hymns for misfits – but when you hear them together in album form, it’s interesting how few of them jar. So Insight, with its slightly uncomfortably discordant vocal and zapping synth effects, somehow seems a perfect fit amongst the punk and grunge of earlier tracks.

You couldn’t comment on Unknown Pleasures without mentioning the artwork – Peter Saville‘s exquisite take on the waveforms, perfectly framed and coloured, complement the music brilliantly. Although Saville seems to have been involved, it’s hard not to be a little offended by the new fortieth anniversary reissue of the album, where the artwork has been inexplicably switched to black-on-white to fit Bernard Sumner‘s original sleeve idea.

The first side closes with New Dawn Fades, one of two or three tracks on here that probably would have been singles if this had been a more recent release. It has a fascinating spacious, epic quality, which seems to just build and build without ever really reaching its explosion. If you weren’t convinced by this album yet, you should be by now.

Or maybe the first track on the second side is the one that clinches it? She’s Lost Control is brilliant, absolutely one of Joy Division‘s finest tracks. It’s accessible as a pop song, and yet dark and rocky, with the excellent early experimental percussive drum effects. If you had to introduce contemporary music to an alien, She’s Lost Control wouldn’t be a bad way to do it.

Shadowplay too has a loyal following, maybe because of the haunting line about “waiting for you,” or maybe because of the catchy guitar line, or perhaps something else entirely. This one I understand less well – it’s a good track, definitely one of the better ones on here, but I think I prefer the previous two.

A couple of shorter tracks follow, Wilderness and Interzone. Both stand out in their own way – the first is cut to a similar template to some of the earlier tracks, while the second is an intriguingly experimental rock piece, with hard-panned tracks and twin-tracked vocals.

Closing the album is the longer, and broader I Remember Nothing, delivering a haunting vocal and moody backing. At the time, without the four decades that have come since its release, I wonder whether this might have seemed an oddly inaccessible track to close the album, but now, with the benefit of time, it seems a perfect closer.

Unknown Pleasures is great, of course – you knew that already. It’s emotional, dark, at times dreamlike, and somehow accessible to indie kids and electroboys/girls alike. Curtis’s raw, bloody, poetic genius is on full form here, and impressively so for a debut album. To a modern eye, it’s perhaps a shame that there wasn’t space for a single or two, but this is true to Joy Division‘s form, nonetheless. And forty years on, it somehow still seems every bit as legendary as it ever did.

It’s difficult to recommend a version of Unknown Pleasures to own without a deeper knowledge of the differences, so you might need to do some of your own research here. This is the regular deluxe edition, to get you started.

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