Weekend Listening: Unknown Pleasures [Collector’s Edition] by Joy Division
Listen while you read (volume may be loud):
Album: Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division
Released: 15 June 1979 from Factory Records (original album release)
Recommended if you like: bluesy punk, moody proto-goth sounds, raw and honest lyrics, New Order, The Smiths
Notable Tracks: “She’s Lost Control” (I prefer the live version), “Shadowplay”, “Disorder”, “New Dawn Fades”, “Interzone” (personal fav)
I didn’t expect to be emotional right now as I start writing this. I picked Joy Division at this week’s listening because my husband and I are seeing New Order next week in Chicago. (If you don’t know the history, Joy Division’s remaining members formed New Order after Ian Curtis, the lead singer, committed suicide in 1980.) I came to love Joy Division through New Order, both of which I came to love through my husband.
My husband and I share a similar soul for music (though not identical–he definitely isn’t on board for my recent obsession with Michael Jackson). Often, if we both only like one song by a particular artist, it will be the same song; or we will like the same sound from one artist but not another sound from the same artist. I never really knew about New Order or Joy Division growing up; I didn’t discover New Order until I was getting drunk at ’80s night at Skully’s in Columbus and they would play “Bizarre Love Triangle” and I would dance my ass off.
Fast forward and fast forward because this isn’t about New Order (I’ll get to them next week), it’s about Joy Division. I didn’t like Joy Division immediately, the way I loved New Order immediately. My husband would occasionally play their studio albums and I was underwhelmed–strange, for a girl who also used to hang at a goth club (not Skully’s), but it’s true. Still, over the years, as one does, I began to learn a lot about Joy Division through my husband; when I learned that Ian Curtis had struggled with epilepsy and then committed suicide . . .
Look. I don’t want to sound like one of those dramatic, moody teenage girls who fall in LUV with rock stars who killed themselves. That’s not how it went down at all. I became mildly obsessed with Ian Curtis, though, because I’ve wrestled with that demon myself too many times. There’s a part of me that’s always looking over my shoulder to make sure I don’t fall into the abyss. When I see it in others, I feel connected. And I grieve, because I know how hard it is to lose yourself. I grieve because I would want someone to understand and grieve for me, for what really was happening to me, if I had gone that path, too.
It was my drive to know about Ian that led me to YouTube, and YouTube led me to their live music and their live music blew me the fuck away.
(See also this video of “Transmission”, which I kept playing on a repeat cycle with the one above for days.)
I didn’t expect to get this deep, y’all. I didn’t expect to be sitting here near tears. I thought I would talk about the cool album art (maybe with a semi-snide remark about how often it’s been caricatured and ripped off over the years) and about how you’ve just gotta listen to the live stuff if you haven’t yet because it’s a different sound. But it’s not just a “different” sound to me. For me, it’s Joy Division’s real sound. I know Ian loved the way that Unknown Pleasures sounded after the producer had worked on it and I’m not in any way trying to suggest that the album sound isn’t exactly what it should have been (though Sumner and Hook also disliked the production sound, a rare agreement between the two) . . . but for me, something is missing from their studio albums that comes through achingly in the live music. A vitality, a manic energy, a struggle and desire. Exhaustion. Desperation, sometimes. The human experience and the whole essence of himself that Ian poured into the music.
Ian’s lyrics were honest and raw and the sounds paired with them often weren’t the most obvious choice. “Disorder” is an upbeat song that will make you dance your ass off, but the lyrics seem to be about Ian’s worsening epilepsy (“It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand, / On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land, / Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now”). There’s an underlying sense of melancholy in the guitar riffs crossed with a jangly, nerve-wrecked energy–it’s upbeat, yeah, but it’s not happy, not at all. “She’s Lost Control” has that same feeling, the skittering-out-of-control feeling that especially becomes apparent in the live version, where the crescendos are more pronounced and the whole song seems to flow upward to an urgent climax. The sound builds; the guitar breaks free; Ian has to sing louder to compete; there is, in the live version, a bit of a primal scream and then Ian begins to dance.
It all raises the hair on the back of my neck. I have never felt those emotions captured so perfectly in art before. And I hurt for Ian when I listen to it. I hurt for myself and all of the people I know who are struggling with depression and illness and suicidal tendencies. You’d think it would be too painful to listen to, but it’s strangely the opposite–being able to listen to these songs and feel them so completely is a blessing. Because I’m still here.