Firstly, I would like it known that I am aware of the historic and cultural significance of Joy Division’s debut, Unknown Pleasures. I know what Ian Curtis, the band and this album as a whole means to people, and just how defining a statement it is. It’s an iconic album against a backdrop of literally millions of other records. It’s hailed as a masterpiece. I get that.
But I am also aware that it’s on virtually every significant ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ list out there, from Rolling Stone to NME. Someone you know probably has a t-shirt with the cover on it.
And I don’t really like it. There. You know in advance (though I imagine the title was a bit of a giveaway). Like Romeo and Juliet, the ending has been spoiled in advance. I’m not going to butcher the album – I know it’s something a lot of people hold close to their hearts – but I do intend to give my verdict on it, given I’ve never listened to it before a few days ago. I listened to it at night, though, to get that added spooky ambience.
Our journey into Unknown Pleasures begins with ‘Disorder’ and, subverting what I expected, it’s a track I actually don’t mind. I only say that because all I really know about Joy Division is that they’re a bit bleak, and for someone who thinks the Smiths are too sombre, that doesn’t bode well. The opening backbeat and distant, almost echoing chords prove mesmerizing, though – with Curtis’ vocals distinct in how matter of fact they are; but ironically powerful. It’s a good example of how the band delivered decent, pop-tinged post-punk – and seemed a clear influence for the Smiths to me.
Sadly, ‘Day of the Lords’ is exactly what I expected from the album. It feels depressingly dirgey and claustrophobic (something writer Jon Savage lauded the album for in 1994, describing it as ‘a definitive Northern Gothic statement’). As Curtis himself wails throughout, it’s ‘distorted’, but not much more. I can feel a defeated kind of vocal slump from him which, to his credit, is sort of his thing. But for me, it’s just too much. By which I mean, too little.
And ‘Candidate’. ‘Candidate’. Dear God, I wanted ‘Candidate’ to end. It gave me the vibes of an early Depeche Mode outtake except more lifeless. By far the worst on the album, and it didn’t get better for me as ‘Insight’ trundled on down the line. Supposedly, producer Martin Hannett had Curtis perform his vocals down a telephone line to achieve that distance in the song. Whilst I appreciate the unorthodox recording techniques (Unknown Pleasures is full of them, in fact – and reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s doomed Tusk which featured Kleenex boxes in the studio) and poppier beat, ‘Insight’ holds the kind of dreary monotony I want from the works of Poe. Not in an album. But then, I’m not really the sort of person Joy Division is singing for.
But then ‘New Dawn Fades’ hit me like first light of the fifth day. ‘New Dawn Fades’ is undoubtedly the album’s most hauntingly beautiful composition. Once the song got ‘going’ (well, further into the runtime), I found it to be a pretty formidable track, with Curtis in full force, showing that raw, untamed energy. I gave a reserved nod at this one, and finally experienced a fraction of why Joy Division are so hailed.
And the unknown pleasures continued with ‘She’s Lost Control’, packing some nice guitar work from Bernard Sumner and remaining one of the punkier pieces of the Gothic suite. ‘Shadowplay’ has a real rhythm to it and the bass kicks ass. It’s a great track, and another hearty slice of post-punk’s dark wave bastard child. It also holds some of the most poetic lyrics yet – ‘To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you’ is killer.
‘Wilderness’, meanwhile, is what I can only describe as remarkably okay. It’s listenable but doesn’t really have any discernable features to pass judgment on one way or another. It’s a caricaturist’s nightmare. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. It’s a universal constant, like time or space. ‘Wilderness’ is almost certainly what Matthew McConaughey heard at the end of Interstellar.
The penultimate song, ‘Interzone’ is one of the album’s highlights, with a grisly lick that runs throughout – cementing the idea in my mind that no, being dark and gothic does not need to be dull. Though, in my defence, I did sort of know that anyway.
Then ‘I Remember Nothing’. My God, ‘I Remember Nothing’. I wish I didn’t. I agree with Melody Maker writer Mary Harron on this one, ‘turgid and monotonous, and the vocals heavy and melodramatic’. But is that any surprise? I probably just don’t ‘get it’. Curtis, Sumner, Hook and Morris were certainly ahead of their time. I only hope I don’t live long enough to see when that is.
To be fair to Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t come away hating it. In fact, I found some real high points in its solemn sanctuary, and came away with a better understanding of why this band from Salford have become quite so colossal a name in music. I can only imagine putting a record like this on in 1979. Seeing those iconic, white radiowaves against a backdrop of sleek, unending black. Hearing Curtis’ pained voice in echoing hallways of half-empty sound.
But, again, my love of the gothic goes about as far as The Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, Type O Negative and a bit of Depeche Mode. I haven’t fallen in love with Joy Division, and I didn’t grow up with it. I’m not a fan of downbeat music, and I never much liked tragedy. So, is it any wonder that Unknown Pleasures fell on deaf ears? I guess I was always a New Order kid.
But, while we’re here, discussing such a definitive statement of the dark and the post-punk, I do want to take the time to remember the loss of Ian Curtis. Love him or hate him, find his songs joyless or intricate, he was certainly one hell of a songwriter, along with the rest of the band. He suffered from epilepsy and depression, and frequently worried about how audiences would view him; how the masses would judge him.
In the early hours of the 18th of May 1980, Curtis took his own life. The band were about to release Closer, their second – and final – album, and embark on a tour across North America. He was just 23. And he had already achieved something so incredible, so timeless, even if he didn’t know. Even if none of them knew.
Rolling Stones put Unknown Pleasures at no. 211 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. NME ranked it at 40. And, while I can’t share in their decision, I can recognize it for its place in musical history. In world history. No, I don’t really like Unknown Pleasures. But I’m glad it exists.