I had planned to listen to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures at dusk, and write about it in the lengthening shadows before it was completely dark. Sunset came and went, so I ended up listening to it as the long night started, the bursts of winds reduced to shaking trees, skittering leaves and a cold sensation on my hands and face as I pulled the headphones on.
Before buying this album, Love Will Tear Us Apart was the only song by Joy Division that I knew. Consequently, I assumed most of their material, and their cultish popularity, was based on simultaneously upbeat and afflicted music. Unknown Pleasures is not upbeat on any level. It is mostly slow and sparse, and overwhelmingly minor. If the vocals weren’t as clean and the drums and guitar heavier, it would be a depressive metal album. As it is, it isn’t heavy, it isn’t catchy, it can’t be danced to, and it sounds quite sparse. The guitar is spacious, scraping or chiming, the bass rumbles, and the drums are light, with minimal fills.
Ian Curtis’ vocals, at first listen, seem fairly flat; not as in at the wrong pitch, but as in being fairly unremarkable. Although the lyrics are vague, working heavily in imagery and metaphors, the mood is unambiguously disconsolate. Recurring lyrical themes are depression, isolation, guilt, selfishness, stasis, failing relationships, urban decay and suicide, and the all-round existential pain of being. The few times it sounds like it’s about to become upbeat, such as Insight, with its pulsing bass line and echoing synth, it always turns to reveal an equally sunless other side. Opening track Disorder embodies this characteristic, an almost calm riff accompanied by the bubbling panic of lines like ‘Could these sensations make me feel the pleasure of a normal man?/These sensations barely interest me for another day’. This panic creeps through into second track Day Of The Lords, Curtis dolefully asking ‘Where will it end?’ A song born of the darkness, it enters with a pulsing, lurking riff. A trait that soon becomes a defining characteristic of the entire album, the riffs steadily repeat, unconcerned with changing, the vocals giving way to frequent instrumental sections. It’s almost as though the neutrality and lack of energy – quite obviously, usually bad things in music – are what gives this album its character.
Given the dominant lyrical themes, this stasis is fitting. The mournful baritone vocals of Day Of The Lords are at first listen seemingly about a zombie apocalypse, but on closer inspection, although indefinitely remaining open to interpretation, are obviously about something much realer; suicide, the pain of life, or maybe even fascism. The track fades out into Candidate’s slow entrance, a chorus-heavy guitar like rusty metal echoing over from a mile away. Full of space, the unvarying nature of the songwriting creates a haunted mood. ‘I tried to get to you…’ repeats at the end, until it just peters out. Again, the lyrics are vague, but refer to the themes of corruption, loss of passion, guilt, the inevitability of failure and mental breakdown. This unconcerned repetition is a big part of the song writing throughout the album, with riffs plugging away for minutes at a time on New Dawn Fades, underpinned by a gritty bass guitar. As the title suggests, the lyrics document the chance of ‘hoping for something more’ and of a new beginning in a relationship, before quickly losing direction in the face of mutual apathy. Likewise, riffs repeat in Shadowplay, unconcerned with changing, building up a morbid sense of momentum with its brooding bass intro and ringing cymbals, gathering a rich, raging guitar sound. Fast and minor, there is an apocalyptic nuance within lines like ‘To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you/ To the depths of the ocean where all hope sank, waiting for you’.
The album lumbers on, head in hands, on a downwards spiral, getting better each step of the way. In particular, She’s Lost Control builds up as it documents the unravelling of a relationship, and the narrator’s consequent slip into destruction. Interzone enters with a fast hi-hat beat, then an almost rocking bass and guitar take it away, searching for friends who can never be found amongst urban decay and manic depression. And then it’s out, at 2.15. I Remember Nothing enters slowly, with scraping echoes, lurching bass, and the sound of a bottle smashing. The riffs repeat, unchanging, whilst two layers of vocals talk over each other, until it fades out with a long instrumental section.
I don’t know much about Joy Division’s contemporaries and the Zeitgeist of post-punk music, so for me it’s really its own beast. First released in 1979, the album liner notes are minimal, with just a track listing, a few credits, and artwork evoking the contours of a mountain range in black and white. I wasn’t sold on Unknown Pleasures at first; I approached it with a lot of cultural baggage, having bought it on the basis of its legendary reputation, and found it to be gloomy, low on energy, sparse, and depressed as one of those fish that lives at the bottom of the sea. It is solitary, entrapped, non-communal music, and as such, I think this explains why it’s a winter album. The unknown pleasures of this album aren’t esoteric or exotic sensations; they’re feelings of happiness, and of everyday feelings. Although when I started listening to it, the night was already dark, when the music stopped and I looked up, it seemed as though it had grown a little darker.