Unknown Pleasures (Factory, 1979)
Closer (Factory, 1980)
Still (Factory, 1981)
Substance (Qwest, 1988)
Permanent (Qwest/Warner, 1995)
Heart and Soul (Rhino, 1998)
Preston Warehouse 28 February 1980 (Factory, 1999)
The Complete BBC Recordings (Varèse, 2000)
Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979 (Get Back, 2001)
The Best of Joy Division (Rhino, 2008)
"Here are the young men/The weight on their shoulders." Could one line sum up a band's self-image as perfectly as that line (from "Decades") sums up Joy Division? From Manchester, U.K., they slouched: four raincoat-clad youths and one legitimately revolutionary producer. Armed only with a stack of William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard novels, a few Iggy albums, and a master-class depressive for a lyricist, Joy Division took punk apart piece by piece and rethought every bit as best they could, creating the most influential sound of their scene and era, as dramatic and severe a rethink of rock's aesthetic parameters as has ever been envisioned.
On the two albums and handful of singles they released as an active band, Joy Division's rolling tom-toms, echoing guitar, and melodic bass created icy, distant rhythms as Ian Curtis' basso profundo subverted, smashed, and proved generally smarter than the goth clichés they've been cursed with ever since. The quartet created a great, free-floating sense of doom, chaos, and uncertainty, yet you could dance to it; a miracle, that.
On May 18, 1980, days before what would likely have been a wildly successful first American tour, 23-year-old Curtis hanged himself in his home, ending the band and cementing its growing legend for (largely) the wrong reasons. The three remaining members conquered the world as New Order.
Joy Division evolved in leaps and bounds after scrapping an album's worth of tracks the band deemed nonrepresentative (a handful became their first EP). Good call, because Unknown Pleasures remains one of rock's most startling debuts. Producer Martin Hannett created moments simultaneously claustrophobic and energetic, displaced and focused, but always jarringly intense and melodramatic. Songs like "Disorder," "Interzone," and "I Remember Nothing" staked out a sonic territory utterly the band's own. Curtis' crystalline voice is anchor and signifier, struggling against chaos, displacement, and that wicked drum sound. Unknown Pleasures is a world-historic struggle against darkness.
You can feel the band slip into that darkness on Closer. Released after Curtis' death and again produced by the extraordinary Hannett, it's an almost impossibly heavy listen, full of unsettling melodies, sepulchral riffs, and funereal tempos. Even the ripping "Isolation" sounds like a dying-light fight. Curtis vents like he just remembered part of Nietzsche's great epigram, "When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you"; it's the lament of a doomed singer's long, slow, sad blink. (In 2007, Rhino put out remastered, double-CD editions of Unknown Pleasures, Closer and the compilation Still, with rarities and live tracks tacked on to each album.)
The band's singles are also remarkable: the "dance, dance, dance to the radio" wail of "Transmission," the tear-jerking melodrama of "Atmosphere," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the band's most exquisite pop moment. A great, rolling juggernaut with Curtis doing his best Sinatra and a brilliant quote from the Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me," tacked onto the coda, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is the band's most accessible moment and its finest hour.
Still is a "beat the boots" double album collecting stray studio tracks and live material from the band's final show. The production is awfully rough, but you get a good sense of the band's muscular live power (see also "Ceremony," which sounds far more desperate and panicked than New Order's icy studio version). The Nineties live albums are better recorded and present a more well-rounded look at the band's strengths, while the BBC sessions are tight and tough. The 1988 release of the fabulous anthology Substance brought Joy Division a whole new generation of fanatical, deep-feeling, black-clad followers; it was the first time many suburban American kids had ever heard the band, a moment captured note-perfectly in the 2001 film Donnie Darko.
Permanent is a shoddy collection of context-free album tracks that are better understood in their original settings. The 2007 film Closer is a very strong Curtis biopic by Anton Corbijn; the soundtrack, however, largely features songs by band who influenced Joy Division—Velvet Underground, Bowie—rather than by JD. The Best of Joy Division is redundant, picking from the two proper albums plus Still and tossing in a bonus disc that contains all of The BBC Sessions.
Heart and Soul is everything all but the most severe fan would ever need: both albums, the crucial singles. It's a brilliant representation of a moment when four young men wandered into the most profound alienation, just to see what was there.
And hey, they're more fun than the Doors.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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