Review: Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures Collector’s Edition
The music of Joy Division in general, and “Unknown Pleasures” in particular has been hashed and rehashed so many times it seems almost silly to write another review. They were a monumentally important band and this, their first proper album, was a monumentally influential record. Rather than try to come up with something new and clever, I’ll lay out the basics for people who have heard of the band but may be unfamiliar with their music.
In many ways Joy Division were the band that instigated the move from punk’s vehement attack on everybody else in the 70s to the moody alienation of 80s alternative. This movement would eventually produce a seemingly unending parade of self-absorbed whining and dreary melodrama which still echoes in the singer-songwriters who think everything is all about how they feel about themselves. But it didn’t start out that way. “Unknown Pleasures” is a collection of songs about confusion, alienation, pressure, crisis, failure, despair and a blind, yearning search for help in a cold, dark and uncaring word that works so well it’s frightening. Bass player Peter Hook plays with a melodic forward-propelling drone that drives the music; guitar player Bernard Sumner contributes stark punk-influenced lines and chords that slash and rip; drummer Stephen Morris is rock solid and accentuates music and lyrics. And then there’s vocalist Ian Curtis. Curtis’ story is well known: He was an epileptic whose illness became increasingly severe as the band toured hard in support of their rapidly growing success to the point where he would have seizures onstage. At around 5:00 a.m. on the day the band was to leave England for their first American tour he hung himself. Although the exact meaning of the lyrics on “Unknown Pleasures” is not always apparent, his baritone carries such a depth of despair and yearning for a way out that the emotional meaning is inescapable.
“Unknown Pleasures” is famous for it’s production as well as its music. Producer Martin Hannett turned down the guitar and bass, brought up the drums and vocals, and added both space and layers of effects to Joy Division’s sound. The result is a harrowing soundscape that often feels like some kind of unseen and only vaguely understood disaster is swirling around the edges searching for a way in that it is going to find, and probably sooner rather than later. The sense of forboding and impending collapse is so strong you can taste it.
Which isn’t really what the band sounded like when they played live. When guitar and bass players Sumner and Hook first heard what Hannett had done, they hated it because they thought he had sucked all the power and energy out of the band by deemphasizing the guitars in favor of vocals, space and sound effects. In a sense, they were right. Joy Division live was quite a different animal than what we hear on “Unknown Pleasures”. Bringing this difference to the listener’s attention is where this Collectors Edition of “Unknown Pleasures” shines. The original and remastered album is accompanied by a second CD that contains a performance recorded live at The Factory in Manchester in 1979, the year “Unknown Pleasures” was released. The sound quality of the live recording is not great but it more than adequately conveys the roaring energy of a Joy Division performance. It’s terrific. However, listeners should be aware that 10 of the 12 tunes recorded live also appear on Rhino’s excellent four disc Joy Division collection “Heart and Soul”. The two tunes that were left off “Heart and Soul” are “Shadowplay” and “Transmission”. “Shadowplay” rages and burns featuring Sumner’s guitar and “Transmission” sounds like an encore recorded with higher gain than the rest of the gig. The sound is badly distorted but the band is amped by the terrific set they just played.
“Unknown Pleasures” is one of the landmark albums of the modern era. It’s essential listening. By packaging the original album with a contemporary live performance the Collector’s Edition gives listeners a full picture of this visionary and enormously talented band. If you are unfamiliar with Joy Division, this is a great place to start. If you love the band and don’t have the “Heart and Soul” box you are going to be delighted with the live recording. If you already have “Heart and Soul” the Collector’s Edition is a tough call. You’re only going get two songs you don’t already have but they’re great songs.
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