We Were Strangers: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures
Joy Division is a band of legend. This cannot be argued. Their impact on the music of their time and music since is also inarguable. Their melancholic sound is further characterized by the suicide of vocalist and lyricist Ian Curtis. If anything, their music is his catharsis and at times our own.
Unknown Pleasures is the first of Joy Division’s two LPs, its sequel being 1980′s Closer. Unknown Pleasures marked the beginning of the band’s rise to popularity, but I’m not here to account for their history. A casual internet read or a viewing of one of many excellent documentaries on the subject will gladly inform you. This is to be an embracing of the record that solidified my love for this band’s music. An embracing, even more so a celebration.
The opening track “Disorder” begins with their signature distant drumming and drab bass lines courtesy of Stephen Morris and Peter Hook, respectively. Then comes that melodic riff that dances throughout the song like a flailing ballerina. Curtis’ voice remains steady, accompanying the instruments until the song’s finale, during which the feelings restrained take hold and Unknown Pleasures lets us in.
The beginning of “Day of the Lords” is a trudging triad, creating a relaxing sound reminiscent of a carefree afternoon. Curtis chimes in accompanied by the soft wail of synthesizers, begging the question “Where will it end?”. His call reaches out, attempting to grasp for an answer, only to withdraw, empty.
“Candidate”, in contrast to the somewhat light tone of “Day of the Lords”, is a dirge permeated by smartly paced drum work, sinister bass lines, ghostly, sparse riffs and Curtis’ baritone pleas. At times Hook’s bass seems to take a slight turn for the happy side, for the slightest instant, but quickly ceases its deviation and returns on its course.
“Insight” begins just as quietly as “Candidate”, but with Bernard Sumner’s strings lurking in the dark. The beat gains a steady pace along with the fluid bass lines and synthesized pecks. Curtis’ longing lyrics and voice are most evident here. The synthesizer and strings enter a seemingly complex dance that simultaneously invokes gloom and beauty. By far one of the most unique tracks on the record.
“New Dawn Fades” is, to me, the standout track of Unknown Pleasures. Curtis’ brooding style reaches an emotional crescendo here and carries the music with it. The tempo builds but not in an alarming manner but on ethereal terms. The gentle riffs and bass lines form an understanding cradle for the burgeoning lyrics espousing woes of change. A truly amazing song.
The catchy, grimly beaten “She’s Lost Control” shows Joy Division utilizing a thin poppy beat that is accentuated with Hook’s equally catchy bass lines and Sumner’s delicate riffs. The synth here creates an ominous feeling for the song, attributing even more to Unknown Pleasures’ airy atmosphere.
“Shadowplay” opens with the signature bass lines but quickly ascends into surf rock-esque riffs courtesy of Sumner. Curtis rides Morris’ steady beat, his voice endowing the track with its own upbeat alienation.
“Wilderness” presents us with Curtis’ lyrics taking the form of self questioning uncertainty. The track speaks of horrors and the impact they have on those who witnessed them. Injustice and the religious implication are rife throughout and with each respective members’ contributions, “Wilderness” paints a vivid and desperate picture.
“Interzone” is by far the record’s most upbeat track that through Curtis’ lyrics, tells a detailed story of purged childhood and desperate escapism. The world described here is painted in all shades of gray and despite the song’s tone, its subject matter is cleverly the opposite.
The final track “I Remember Nothing” is in stark contrast to “Interzone” as the album’s most somber installment. The dirge to end all dirges, Curtis’ repeating of the line “We were strangers.”, carries an ominous and heartbreaking vibe to it. This track is beautiful. We are provided with overwhelming evidence of a relationship on the rocks and the resultant damaged psyche.
Joy Division’s discography is a pantheon of emotional works that move our deepest melancholies. Unknown Pleasures is arguably their magnum opus, twisting the heart strings of the listener in every painful way possible. It is not a happy record by any means. Unknown Pleasures is a brooding masterpiece of post-rock and a forefather of the genre in its own right. It is the soundtrack to when we are at our most distant with not only others but ourselves as well.
Joy Division has been my go-to band when things are down or I’ve just simply had enough. Many of those nights have been spent with this record casting its spell over me as I wrote some insignificant story or poem. It was these cathartic moments that I realized the importance of this record. Few artists have achieved the mood that Unknown Pleasures has, which is testament to Joy Division’s endearing sound and the impact it has had on the generations of musicians and down trodden that have followed.
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