The first song on Joy Division's justifiably classic (and utterly perfect) debut takes all the passion, fury, rage and nihilism of "Anarchy in the UK," and spikes it with a healthy fear of death. The band, which famously got its start after a sparsely attended — and, therefore, legendary — Buzzcocks/Sex Pistols double bill at the Manchester Free Trade Hall started out violent and thrashing and became more ruthless and effective by becoming… read more »
The first song on Joy Division's justifiably classic (and utterly perfect) debut takes all the passion, fury, rage and nihilism of "Anarchy in the UK," and spikes it with a healthy fear of death. The band, which famously got its start after a sparsely attended — and, therefore, legendary — Buzzcocks/Sex Pistols double bill at the Manchester Free Trade Hall started out violent and thrashing and became more ruthless and effective by becoming leaner. After a record's worth of material was hastily recorded for RCA and just as hastily scrapped, the group convened with eccentric producer Martin Hannett at Strawberry Studios to make one last attempt to save themselves from the dead-end of the Manchester working class. Unknown Pleasures not only accomplished that goal, but stands 30 years later as a work of stark, sepulchral beauty.
The album's most arresting attribute lies in Ian Curtis's ability to contain both searing anguish and paralyzing terror in the hollow sound of his holy, beautiful, chilling voice. The finale of that first song, "Disorder," is a terrific spasm of dread, Curtis howling, "I've got the spirit! But lose the feeling!" over and over as the band collapses in a grisly heap behind him. "Guess that dreams always end," he later observes, "they don't rise up, just descend," before adding, ominously: "But I don't care anymore."
In truth, the album belongs as much to its producer as it does to the band. Famously fussy in the studio, Hannett subjected the band to unending tortures, convening sessions at 3 a.m. and forcing the band to play with the air conditioner cranked to inhumane levels. Naturally, these wild ideas yielded huge dividends: His decision to add a nanosecond of digital delay to Steven Morris's drumming goes a long way to lending the album its eerie, otherworldly sound. He restricts Bernard Sumner's guitar work to a series of slashing lines — each of them as capable of raising gooseflesh as anything Curtis sings. The central hook on "She's Lost Control" creeps like a tarantula, extending its shivery fingers across Morris's ghost-whisper percussion as Curtis's voice, ruined deliberately by layers of effects, bellows from the beyond.
But what's remarkable about Unknown Pleasures is as much between the notes as in them. There is something about the tone of Curtis's voice that conveys the notion of divine judgment — the idea that you've fucked up now, and that there is no turning back and no pleading your case — no other option but to stare headlong into the awful consequences of what you've done. Even the song titles seem to speak to the evaporation of hope: "Wilderness," "New Dawn Fades." The latter is one of the group's best, Sumner's sawing guitar line playing the Angel of Death, floating blue and ominous in through city streets, looking for souls to collect while Curtis icily intones: "Directionless, so plain to see/ 'A loaded gun won't set you free'/ …so you say." Struggling to come to grips with his increasingly crippling epilepsy, Curtis allows black depression to ferment into acrid despair, and his voice reflects his growing sense of helplessness.
When Curtis is frantic, he's just as good: "To the center of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you/ To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you." He'll never find who it is he's looking for, but the search continues, in the dead of night, in desolate city streets, Curtis getting gradually more panicked until the song finally sputters out. This is music for the ice-cold Dark Night of the Soul. It is, without exception, one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.