Saturday, June 23, 2018

Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Over the years the first album by Joy Division has somehow turned as cuddly as a teddy bear or a Coke in the history of rock, which is at least as remarkable a transformation as Ozzy Osbourne reinvented as a doddering papa reality TV show star. Example: the way the (wonderful and mysterious) pulsar cover art of Unknown Pleasures has been turned into a latter-day animated meme industry unto itself, including a pair of textured Doc Martens boots (also available in Power, Corruption & Lies and Technique models). Have they listened to the album? This relatively recent turn might be a result of a 2015 Scientific American article about the album cover, but what this tells us is that even Scientific American is on to Joy Division now. Even Scientific American. The question remains. Have they heard the music? When I think of it—because I don't actually listen to Joy Division that often, full disclosure—I often remember the music as "dreary." But put it on and you'll hear it's a bit more than that. It may be entertaining—it is entertaining—but it is also unnerving, not least because since singer Ian Curtis's shocking suicide in 1980, age 23, we have had the opportunity to view it the way we perhaps should, through the lens of a troubled life. We might have guessed in the first place, after all.

In a way I think both of these responses—the ongoing trivialization of the cover art by popular culture and my impulse to label the music in memory as dreary—are symptomatic and come from approximately the same place. Really, it's just not easy to engage this music on its terms and feel the horrors of Curtis's desperation, which are so visceral and so vividly represented in sound. Because the songs, and especially the production by Martin Hannett, are so good, it's hard to square this circle. You might even feel slightly foolish, or hipster-pretentious, sitting down to listen to it intentionally. Better always to keep things like this slightly buffoonish and at a distance. But Unknown Pleasures is pretty real. Joy Division was pretty real. As we learned, it's well beyond the harmless adolescent angst that is the calling card of popular rock production (from Chuck Berry to Aerosmith and beyond) and instead well into real adolescent angst, as inflected by heartless depression.

I didn't understand for a long time the origins of "Joy Division" in Nazi Germany concentration camps, though "New Order" was harder to miss (at the time, however, I took it more as a brave and foolish soldiering-on statement of bravado, like when the remaining Doors released an album called Other Voices after Jim Morrison was dead). Either way, I never thought of Joy Division or Unknown Pleasures as affected or a put-on. Yes, Curtis can radiate a certain suave doomy Jim Morrison vibe (speaking of the Door), as in "Day of the Lords," where he is found bellowing, "Where will it end? Where will it END?"

But the problem here, if it is a problem, is that the music is consistently good, in spite of any misgivings about the goth mood or Curtis's problems. I've thought it was good ever since I got the album a few weeks before Curtis's death. It's recklessly dramatic but always feeling for grooves, with memorable fragments of melody and lyrics, plus restrained but effective sound effects (again, all due credit to producer Hannett). At this point Joy Division was still a gangly clutch of amateur yobbos but it's not completely surprising that the survivors are pros now and still going relatively strong. Famously sons of a Manchester Sex Pistols "Gig That Changed the World" show in 1976, whose audience literally produced a handful of the most important punk and post-punk bands, Joy Division has to be accounted as punk-rock to the core by instinct but plainly leaning off in the direction of broody Percy and Mary Shelley goths, with tentative touches of metal.

In fact, "Day of the Lords" is quintessential J.D. in all kinds of ways. It has another murky line about "the bodies obtained," which given the title and other clues makes me think it's less about Frankenstein and more about Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Certainly it has a cinematic flair—most of these songs do. That rhythmic signature "Day of the Lords" makes with Bernard Sumner scraping across an electric guitar chord. The dark quavering keyboard notes. The super heavy bottom (another feature all these songs have). It feels, so to speak, like relentless gnawing evil so overdone it's almost comical, like scenes from H.P. Lovecraft (which somehow nonetheless still produce the anxiety). There's enough cognitive dissonance to go around here. Yet it works, though it's hard to imagine the occasions when you'd want to put it on, other than something stupid like midnight with candles burning, on PCP.

Curtis sounds genuinely bummed out here—disturbed, probably the better term—but also in thrall to the music, which in spite of everything somehow brings a redemptive edge. For all the high drama (oh no, "she's lost control again," smash smash), these songs are good. This album is good. The band is operating in the darkest parts of a soul, clearly, but artfully, with little jewels of hooks and interesting settings that keep veering toward metal, all sludged up, or working up to throbby disco tempos, or both. It can be irresistible in its way. I can also say from experience that it sounds good even with leaf blowers going outside your window—better, in some ways, the grand modern-day orchestra of internal combustion racket. Turn up loud.

In the throes of infatuation with this album—I have to think it's relatively timeless, it still sounds fresh to me, now that I've been putting it on again—you almost can't forgive yourself for coming back to it, but that's what you're drawn to. Call it catharsis, like the line on horror movies. Certainly Unknown Pleasures can be scary. But it's also just good. The album closer, "I Remember Nothing," goes almost six minutes. It starts with a drumkit, then a sour bass. Glass is smashed—a sound effect, but an intense one, like they made a bad mess somewhere, with shards and slivers. Careful cleaning that up! As the song goes, it is like a tractor tearing down a forest, an aimless beast lost on an ice floe, the end times of all existence. You don't want to listen to this stuff every day but on some level it's good to know it's out there.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up. JD is the height of my goth fixation for sure. Indicating my limits in this direction my favorite from these guys actually would be Power, Corruption, & Lies. But on this one and Closer and the comp Still, what JD I know, Curtis's maudlin, humorless, stentorian laments and the futuristic, dystopic, metal industrial decay are indelible and infectious in a slightly creepy way. There is something unnerving ab the appeal of those records. "Love Will Tear Us Apart," etc.