Words can barely describe this record, it is both of its time and timeless, a testament to the unique power of words. I remember the first time I listened to Joy Division, merely out of curiosity, I was hooked in a heartbeat. It was like a higher being had slapped me across the face and told me what real music sounds like. Far-flung from their more aggressive sound in their EP An Ideal for Living, Unknown Pleasures is almost psychedelic in its tone, delivery and lyricism.
One can thank more than just Joy Division for this unique record; Tony Wilson’s eye for talent, Peter Saville’s iconic graphic design, and Martin Hannett’s interpretation and subsequent mixing of the recording sessions. Unknown Pleasures opens with Disorder, and beautiful audio-assault from all sides with the jarring partnership of Peter Hook’s high-strung bass playing, and Bernard Sumner’s aggressive guitar riffs. Disorder is a gentle reminder of the bands earlier, punk-inspired days under the name Warsaw.
Day of the Lords follows, with a much slower, and more gothic aesthetic. The track opens with a wild-yet-tight melody from Sumner, simultaneously distant yet right in your ear. Unlike most of the other tracks on Unknown Pleasures, Sumner’s guitar actually takes the lead (see She’s Lost Control for the opposite). This song is the first time on the record that Ian Curtis’ dark poetry really captivates the listener, beckoning you into the twisted-yet-beautiful world that Joy Division created in their short tenure. At the four-minute mark, you can almost hear the pain in Curtis’ voice as he bellows “when will it end” over the perfectly flawed ensemble of Sumner, Hook and Morris.
After the powerful opening two tracks, Candidate follows. A slower, more Bass orientated melody, this is where Ian Curtis really grips the listener by the throat and conveys his message of desolation, despair and desperation. Morris’ drumming lives a life of its own during Candidate.
Insight is the penultimate song on the first side of the record. The opening sound effects fit perfectly with the ethos and the aesthetic of Unknown Pleasures, with the sound of a shaft door closing and echoing, it befits the industrial and empty sound of the album. After 30-seconds without an instrument being heard, Peter Hook’s bass slowly creeps in, joined by Morris on drums and eventually the tightly-fit vocals of Curtis. This is the first time that futuristic instruments were used, although playing a small role, this would set the precedent for the sound of Love Will Tear us Apart and eventually New Order.
New Dawn Fades is the last entry on the records A-side. Arguably the strongest song on the album, its stunningly coordinated introduction sums up what is really special about Joy Divison, four equally talented musicians all doing their own thing, all brought together by the genius of Martin Hannett. As the song progresses, Morris’ addictively melodic drum patterns are joined by the rhythmic bass of Hook, which is joined by the wild guitar of Sumner, the tapestry is completed by the haunting voice of Curtis. Lyrically it is one of the strongest songs, not only in the album, but in the bands entire back catalogue.
Side two begins with She’s Lost Control, one of the most iconic Joy Division songs. Inspired by Curtis’ experience with an epilepsy sufferer, a condition that would later lead to Curtis’ tragic 1980 suicide. The song is an interesting gateway into the genius-insanity of the troubled frontman. Once again, Peter Hook takes control of the instrumentals, with his unique playing style making up the core-melody of the verses, and Sumners’ aggressive but timely chorus riff. The song is synonymous with Ian’s iconic dancing on-stage, and the nearest thing to an admission of the insanity that was the catalyst for Joy Divisions iconic sound.
Shadowplay follows. Its aggressive, punk-inspired explosion at the start of the track blows away the melancholy of She’s Lost Control. Once again, the brooding lyrics take centre stage, in between the hypnotic guitar playing. This is one of the few songs on the record where the three instrumentalists work together as a unit, with the Drumming and Bass playing coming together as one. This is one song that it’s okay to dance to.
Wilderness signals the beginning of the end, as from here the opera that is Unknown Pleasures begins to wind down. Wilderness could be considered one of the weaker songs on the album, the lyrics are still as agonisingly poignant as the rest of the record, yet it just feels like it lacks the same emotional kick as some of the earlier material. I still enjoy this song, but you’ll never meet a Joy Division fan whose favourite song is Wilderness.
Interzone could easily have been from a completely different band, let alone record. It is a direct throwback to the earlier Joy Division work. Ironically it’s probably the only track on the record that sounds the same live. Everything about this song is different, even the vocals are far-flung from its usual melancholic baritone. Peter Hook’s backing vocals give the song a different complexion to the rest of the album.
The album ends with a return to the hauntingly beautiful pace of songs like Day of the Lords and New Dawn Fades. Its slow build-up once again takes you into the mind of Curtis and co. The pain and anguish in his voice is once again. The album ends with the same closing of the door that can be heard at the beginning of Candidate. If I had to choose one word to describe that gothic opera that is Unknown Pleasures, it would be ‘haunting’.
Everything about this work of art is haunting, the melodies, vocals and lyrics take you on a journey into the mind of a disturbed and tortured individual, and we are all better off because of it. This record, and this band, feels like so much more than just music. It’s deeply relatable on a level that mainstream music wouldn’t dare venture to. On one hand an aggressive post-punk manifesto. Yet on the other hand it’s almost a friend, a record to listen to when the world around you seems bleak, an escape.
Listen to Unknown Pleasures, with the lights off and your headphones on, and you won’t be the same afterwards.
Written by Sam Revivo