Album Review: Unknown Pleasures

Post-punk isn’t popular in my neighborhood. At least once a day you’ll find someone wearing a Circle Jerks t-shirt or a car adorned with a Misfits Social Club bumper sticker, but very little musical conversation around Northeast L.A. revolves around Talking Heads or Sonic Youth.

I therefore find it interesting that Unknown Pleasures, the debut from dark heroes Joy Division, is often mentioned in the same breath as Raw Power, Never Mind the Bollocks, and the debut of The Ramones as essential collectors items amongst the youth in my hometown. It doesn’t have nearly the power of the music that came only a couple dozen months before its release, and yet my peers treat it as if there were a black aura surrounding the legendary album cover. These are the same peers, mind you, that had nose piercings by sixth grade and would wear black boots with black denim and leather jackets in the dead of summer. I didn’t see how Joy Division fit.

After waiting 18 years of my life to listen to Unknown Pleasures, my initial thoughts haven’t changed much. I’ve heard many people older than the internet laud over how distinct and emotionally charged it was upon its release, but the trouble for those who weren’t born in that era is our ignorance to the buzz surrounding what was considered one of the decade’s most important albums. I can imagine that in 1979, there was no one that sounded like Joy Division, but since then there have been many successful acts that have been successful by being dark and brooding (Nine Inch Nails, Interpol, She Wants Revenge).

Ian Curtis’s drawl and the band’s journalistic approach to storytelling may have been fresh thirty years ago, but it’s nothing new to me, and as a result I have to judge it simply by the quality of the music. For what is many of my friend’s favorite album, I find it underwhelming.

The album begins and ends with some amazing work, “Disorder” having one of my favorite bass lines ever recorded and “I Remember Nothing” being one of the loneliest songs I’ve heard in my life. Curtis’s appeal comes from his blunt honesty and his cathartic voice. He’s not the most recognizable singer of his era, but his singing evokes sympathy in the listener unlike any other.

In between those two songs, however, I can find very little to write about. “Day of the Lords” and “Candidate” are much of the same, and entirely boring. There are interesting segments that can be found throughout, especially the double tracking on “Interzone” and the ambiance on “Insight”, things that can make a good but hardly life-changing album.

My biggest qualm is with the two most recognizable tracks, “She Lost Control” and “Shadowplay”. Neither of the songs compare to the melodic brilliance of the opening track (or really anything on their next album Closer). The melody on “Control” isn’t impressive and, even though you might as well shoot me now, I like The Killers cover of “Shadowplay” more than the original.

There are many production qualities that I found impressive. The longer-than-usual pause between every song gave me chills as much as the music itself, but it’s not a good sign when the silence on an album is as powerful as the recordings. Unknown Pleasures is a good album with only glimpses of the emotional frailty that I expected to perpetuate throughout. My relative indifference may be a result of my unfortunate timing at birth, but there isn’t much I can do about that. I like Joy Division, but I’m not going to be sporting black shirts in the dead of summer to proclaim my love for an album I find to be less than stellar.

 

 

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