Joy Division arrived on the scene with their sound completely worked out and their musical identity fully formed. Comparisons to the Doors and potential Goth connotations are irrelevant; Joy Division had their own identity, independent of any influences or cultural overtones. No one before had sounded quite like this, and while bands like Interpol certainly try, no one has managed to duplicate their sound.
And what is their sound? Dark, tenebrous, pseudo-apocalyptic, conjuring visions of desolate wastelands and blighted landscapes. I'd say that krautrock's as strong an influence as Morrison and company, what with the dystopian sonic visions and raw, industrial textures. The largest comparison to the Doors stems from frontman Ian Curtis, whose voice is certainly reminiscent of Morrison's, to the point where he seems to consciously emulate him in delivery. This homage certainly works in the band's favor, as Morrison was the master of evoking this kind of all encompassing darkness and despair, and in this regard Curtis is a loyal disciple.
But Unknown Pleasures goes beyond the Doors, and manages to make them seem subtle and tame by comparison. This is crushing, devastating music, trying to be as dark as humanly possible with no compromises. The sound is uniform on the album, which is not to say the songs are interchangeable; each possesses a well defined melody. But the aural palette is unchanging; the same sound is adapted to each melody. This gives the album an amazing cohesiveness, and truly makes it seem like a singular vision.
With a sound this perfect you would think the group would be content to simply coast on it, but this is never the case. The songwriting is strong, with standouts like the fast rocker Shadowplay and the infamous She's Lost Control, with its hypnotic riff and ominous lyrics.
The album bludgeons and batters the listener with its relentless bleakness and hopelessness. There are no moments of reprieve; the album is unceasing in its assault on the listener. The amazing thing is that the album is considered poppy when compared to its follow up. This relative popiness manifests itself in the forms of the songs' shorter length, more conventional song structures and more overt hooks, but this is by no means a poppy album; it's merely the more accessible of the two albums.
If one is to proceed with the Doors comparison, then one could remark that, like the doors, Joy Division had a unique, amazing dark sound worked out and, also like the Doors, they had the songwriting talent to complement it. Sadly, like the Doors they wouldn't last very long, but they left behind some wonderful mementos. This album is like nothing else, and a necessary purchase for any rock fan with a tolerance for dark music.
Having fully established their sound on their self-assured debut, Joy Division were ready to make their great artistic statement. Hardcore fans will proclaim that this endeavor was a huge success, while more casual listeners tend to gravitate toward the more axiomatically gratifying debut, dismissing this as pretentious and self-indulgent and a neglection of the more conventional songwriting that made their first outing an engaging listen.
Not that this is by any means an abandonment of hooks, however; they're merely less overt than those in UP. Catchy riffs, memorable vocal hooks and compelling instrumentals and arrangements abound, and in many ways their comparative subtlety enables them to hit even harder.
Where the first album was devastating through its relentless onslaught of pounding darkness, Closer penetrates deeper, a more emotional, sincere and anguished album than its predecessor. Through its emotional transparency it gives the darkness that typifies their sound greater meaning, never seeming like a forced fashionable Goth stunt or darkness for the sake of darkness. UP took this sound and used it to make excellent rock songs; Closer uses it for deeper, more ambitious ends, broadening their scope and conveying a more universal message.
The album is incredibly potent, an emotionally exhausting listen, filled with haunting, harrowing and melancholic songs. Curtis has developed a new lyrical style, spouting pretentious would-be profundities that are redeemed by his typically brilliant delivery. Everything is more serious this time around, which is saying a lot as UP was wholly devoid of humor or whimsy to begin with.
In the end Closer is just a very intimate listen, one that fully capitalizes on the potency of their trademark sound. UP has more great songs and is certainly a much catchier listen all around, but Closer goes deeper than the debut ever did, providing a cathartic experience that their first album was incapable of delivering. I'm not sure which is better overall, but both are certainly essential listens.
Shortly after the release of Closer Curtis took his own life, hanging himself. The group would carry on, forming the New Order, recognizing that it was impossible to retain their original name or profess to be the same band in any respect. Curtis was an essential part of the Joy Division sound, as evidenced by the vastly different, dance oriented music of the New Order.
The abortion of the group, which had already developed an extensive, devoted cult following, in its early stages, leaving behind only a modicum of readily available material, launched the inevitable campaign by the record company to profit from the group's untimely demise. A plethora of rarities collections were hastily issued, with the most prominent and easily obtainable of these, Still, featuring some somewhat questionable omissions. Yet another rarities collection would be necessary; that collection is Substance, by far the best of these comps that you'll find.
Substance chronicles the band's growth, from their days as punk outfit Warsaw to mislabeled poster boys of the Goth movement. This material is composed of outtakes, rarities and singles, with, to the relief of hardcore fans everywhere, no overlap with the two LP's.
The Warsaw material is historically interesting but expendable, mostly consisting of generic punk with little indication of the greatness to follow. As is inevitable when dealing with material from the vault the content is at times erratic, with tracks like the drone Autosuggestion featuring a marked lack of development or progression over its excessively inflated running time, but on the whole the material is remarkably strong, providing an excellent complement to the big albums.
A handful of Joy Division obscure classics are present, such as the rockers Digital, Transmission, Novelty and the Nine Inch Nails covered Dead Souls, along with the (naturally) atmospheric Atmosphere and the legendary despairing anthem Love Will Tear Us Apart, the band's best known song. While it may not deserve its iconic status, which it derives at the expense of their album material, it's an undeniably great song, with an incredibly haunting melody unlike anything else the group had produced.
The strength of these tracks alone merits the purchase of this album, an essential collection for any fan of the group. The low points (the Warsaw material, Autosuggestion and the misguided single version of the brilliant She's Lost Control) are few, and the choice cuts feel like real Joy Division songs, not just effluvia the record company tried to salvage to educe a bit more cash from a rotting carcass.