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Unknown Pleasures & Closer
by Michka Assayas

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures & Closer M Assayas

Translated from Michka Assayas's original review published in 1981.

What should I do ? Show my "Unknown Pleasures" vinyl copy, totally worn-out, scratching, frayed, like "Get Happy!!" or the first Specials record? I don't know what to do anymore to break the deplorable and scandalous image of Joy Division in France. As any band whose reputation remains stupidly underground, and whose records are not to be easily found, Joy Division are always considered in France as gloomy, vaguely fashionable, and bought by a bunch of maniacs who don't even listen to them. A band for neurasthenics, people whose main concern is to think about life and death, like Peter Hammill. Forget this image.

Since mid-79, Joy Division have been the most powerful antidote to the "musical valium" (Elvis Costello, "Strict time") which threatens to anaesthetize us for good, week after week. "Unknown Pleasures" makes us believe that there's still some hope, that you can meet people who can't stand lazyness and who develop their inner strength when they are confronted to the world misery. As a matter of fact, "Unknown Pleasures", with its granulous, anonymous and hermetic cover, is 1979 most rapturous record. I mean it keeps its listener in a state of tension and dread; and the release brought to the listener by the songs is something exuberant and exhilarating. "I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand...": do you know many records beginning with such classical and necessary words - you can count them on the fingers of one hand. As early as "Disorder", Ian Curtis's voice rises with an unwarranted humble strength. Husky, frightened, alien, it seems to terrorize in the first place the body it belongs to. "Disorder" with its animal, repetitive and overwhelming riff, is the product of a band who would have survived everything, inherited a chaotic, invertebrate world, and who can stand up only thanks to desperate discipline and asceticism. In that fight with a collapsing world, Joy Division triumphs with unpredictable ferocity and jubilation: the conquering rage of "Wilderness", rash exploration through pale ruins, with the drums which seem to roll down the staircase, the guitar which flies above everything sounding like a helicopter engine, but that - for a few seconds - stands aside a start of terrifying lucidity of Ian Curtis ("They had tears in their eyes / TEARS IN THEIR EYES"). The somnanbulistic "Insight", with its rhythm which stands all by itself, fastens the cardiac beating. Calmed down, unconcerned, Ian Curtis follows the endless ricochets of the song. Once again, the break is the most intense moment: Curtis sings softly, slowing down the pace "But I remember / When we were young" before raising his voice ("I'm not afraid anymore / I'm not AFRAID ANYMORE ..."). The dense, claustropobic texture of "Unknown Pleasures" is mainly due to Martin Hannett's breathtaking work: instead of working on each instrument separately, he proceeds by successive implosions and turns the sound towards the inside. Boundless echoes, impenetrable instrument layers ... Hannett, a kind of madman, has invented the most human sound of the decade. Call it industrial, psychedelic, it is the sound that everyone will try to copy for quite a while. And that will remain Joy Division's sound. "Closer" was released in a totally different context. Ian Curtis had hanged himself in May near Manchester, a few days after the last recording sessions, the day before the band was due to go to America; in the UK, Joy Division were on the verge of becoming big business. Curtis was an epileptic, may be a schizophrenic; he was above all a very shy person, sometimes exuberant, sometimes mute. His sordid, discreet death was in no way predestined by a morbid pernicious - or what else do I know - music, as cliches attached to Joy Division would make one believe. Joy Division's music was pure. This was not enough to heal Curtis. The most touching thing in "Closer" is surely the sudden shyness of Ian Curtis's voice. Instead of raising his voice in climaxes, he tried almost awkwardly to sing in a bright and calm tone. "Closer" A-side presents an extreme development of "Unknown Pleasures": dislocated songs, musical jungle and relentless rhythms. With its drums dull and brutal rolling and its disembodied guitar, plus the calm of the bass and the voice in counter-point, "Atrocity Exhibition" delivers a kind of ritual introduction to "Closer". Up to "A Means To An End", we go deep into a dreadful but always dazzling chaos.

But the B-side, probably recorded a few days later, along with the essential single "Love Will Tear Us Apart", goes where nobody ever ventured. No musical experiment, no arrangement complexity, just an appeased and sovereign clarity. "Heart And Soul", "The Eternal" and "Decades" (aka "Memories") change the density of the air in the place where you're listening to this record: everything falls back, thickens and shines. Piano la Satie, out-of-date ingenuous mellotron, "The Eternal" and "Decades" bring tears of release to the listener's eyes. Along with John Cale's, Joy Division's records are the only ones where ballads have an essential meaning. "Closer" took the benefit of a miraculous conjuction; it is a magical and intangible work. Even if I repeat myself, I can only think of "Get Happy!!" to be as steady, crucial and indispensable. And as things go, I'm not speaking for 1980, but for the decade.

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Update 2021-02-19    Copyright Michel ENKIRI