In recent years, I’ve found myself reaching for virtually every other first-wave post-punk record before this one. Don’t get me wrong: This is a tough classic to tackle because, like a lot of insecure, privileged, weedy white kids, it was once a major source of solace for me. I maintain that “Disorder” is an essential album opener, and “She’s Lost Control” a poignant discourse on total collapse.
Still, as of now, Unknown Pleasures occupies this weird stasis of “best shirt” more than post-punk manifesto. Its cover is right up there with that tiresome Nirvana smiley logo, and you can snag each for about $20 at your local H&M. The enigmatic pulsar readings have graced fashion, kitchenware, skateboards, condoms, and more.
The music, however, has evaded this same pervasiveness in our social consciousness. It’s a widely respected piece of art, but it isn’t integrated with pop culture in the same way. This is a record for #sadbois, and the conviction of its downcast emotional appeals has eroded over time.
Ian Curtis’s vocals often sound more narcoleptic than harrowing in light of indie music’s more recent forays into emotional viscerality. The dark, fragmentary imagery that riddles these songs now comes off as rather vague and self-serving, especially since open discussions on mental illness so often punctuate today’s Muzak engineered for sensitive types.
Granted, this work still resonates with a massive group of young adults and punk patrons alike, and it’s no coincidence that many of them keep it in rotation as a means of catharsis. This album is what loneliness sounds like. But there’s a hollowness to its arrangements that seems less haunted, and more empty as we celebrate the utmost emotional candour in our art.
Cinematic emotions have gone widescreen through hyper-personalized pop pandering, and in the case of anti-poetry, the delivery of human pain has only gotten more vivid and biting. Unknown Pleasures is awkward and sloppy in comparison. Mined of its emotional heft, the group’s remedial abilities are difficult to ignore. Every bumbling drum fill, flat note, and awkward transition kills the music’s demand for stone-faced credulity.
Martin Hannett’s inventive production—though seminal to the Joy Division sound—curbs the muscle of the band’s live performances and, in turn, emphasizes their growing pains. The resultant gothic crawl is incalculably influential, but as a thesis, it seems somehow smaller and more insular than it used to. It’s a shame too that the record has come to represent a specific kind of self-loathing, because the Manchester scene that Joy Division flourished in never again sounded so bleak.
Sambo Chilton is a restless space cadet, writer, and musician residing in Ottawa, Ontario. He is currently finishing his second year in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College, as well as a number of short stories, essays, and ditties to hum while contemplating one’s puny mortal existence.