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Thursday, October 29, 2009

29 in 2009 - Joy Division: "Unknown Pleasures"

Joy Division:  Unknown Pleasures
Originally Released:  June 15, 1979
Genres:  Indie Rock, Post-Punk
Rating:  5 out of 10

I gave up on trying to like Joy Division shortly into my first listen to Unknown Pleasures.  Whether it was the spacious, cold production or Ian Curtis' tragically awful vocal performance that turned me off is debatable.  In truth, it was probably a bit of both.

I could have ended my "journey" there, but I chose to press on.  Once I had determined that this was music that I simply could not get into, I tried to figure out why this album is such a big freaking deal.  As it goes with most overrated BFDs, there's a death involved.  This was not news to me.  I have long been familiar with the story of Ian Curtis, his depression, his epilepsy, his marriage, and his suicide.  It's a tragic tale.  Not so tragic (or unsurprising, really) is knowing that the band didn't become the legendary, worldwide-known, indie-rock patriarchs that they are until after Curtis' unfortunate demise.  Listening to a "classic" artist after they've passed away tends to change one's perception of the artist's music.

For Joy Division's two albums (both of which received a perfect score from Pitchfork...really?), Curtis' death is really a blessing in disguise because it presents the music of Joy Divsion in an entirely different context than it would have otherwise been presented.  One knows the ending before they even think about listening to the music.  Unknown Pleasures plays out like a jigsaw puzzle, each song a different piece to complete the image seen on the front of the box.  By the time the album is over, Curtis' death isn't so much an unexpected tragedy as it is the logical conclusion. 

Listening to the album from this perspective, I can't say that I enjoyed it more, but I definitely understood and appreciated it to a greater extent.  The music, when slow and methodical, is strenuous and boring; when upbeat, almost amateur in sound.  "She's Lost Control" proudly displays the band's punk roots, but it sounds downright awful to these ears.  That's nowhere near as bad as Curtis' missed (and sustained?!?) note on "I Remember Nothing," which just flat out has no purpose on an album full of music. 

The production of Unknown Pleasures, which others have referred to as "legendary" and "perfect," predictably gets more melancholic scores from me.  Even by 1979 standards, the quality of the recordings are far below what I would consider acceptable.  Admittedly, the style of production does provide a certain atmosphere to the music, but it in no way makes Unknown Pleasures easier to listen to, or enjoy.

In my opinion, the album's best moment comes on the second track "Day of the Lords," in which Curtis, with as much emotion as he ever musters, repeats the question, "How will it end?"  Modern audiences have the luxury of hearing that line and seeing a bit of irony in it.  I, however, imagine Curtis locked away in a room, penning the line with an acute sense of fear and anxiety over his future.  That, to me, makes the song a dozen times better.  And this is why I think Unknown Pleasures is an overrated album.  Because without the knowledge of Curtis' passing, the album is simply mediocre, losing all of its power and importance. 

The end.

Verdict:  Classically Overrated


Anonymous said...

couldn't agree more.

looked into these guys when everyone brought them up whenever interpol was mentioned. interpol is by far superior in my opinion.

yup yup.

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