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Friday, January 19, 2018

Joy Division: Still


1) Exercise One; 2) Ice Age; 3) The Sound Of Music; 4) Glass; 5) The Only Mistake; 6) Walked In Line; 7) The Kill; 8) Something Must Break; 9) Dead Souls; 10) Sister Ray; 11) Ceremony; 12) Shadow Play; 13) Means To An End; 14) Passover; 15) New Dawn Fades; 16) Transmission; 17) Disorder; 18) Isolation; 19) Decades; 20) Digital.

General verdict: Somewhat mediocre outtakes, but hey, it's Joy Division! It's treasurable by default!

This somewhat sprawling coda to Joy Division's short career may be called the last «proper» JD album, largely because all of its first disc consists of previously unreleased outtakes, but it is also the first in a lengthy series of posthumous releases that, frankly, do a better job of confirming the enormity of the legend than of enriching the legend with truly valuable content. Joy Division were not a collective Bob Dylan, their productivity even in peak years was rather modest, and when they left something behind, there was usually a good reason for this.

The nine original songs on the first disc (the tenth is a live cover of The Velvet Underground's ʽSister Rayʼ) date from October '78 to January '80, but the majority of them date from the Unknown Pleasures period, so what you would expect to find is a bunch of mid- to fast-tempo rockers, not very heavy on atmospheric subtleties and, since they are outtakes, not too polished production-wise. The briefest assessment of them all that can be made is: they add nothing to what we already know, think, or feel about Joy Division. And why should they? They represent shelved, abandoned, or temporarily frozen ideas that would later be reworked and perfected into the shape of those Joy Division songs that we already know and love. But if you state it clearly and openly that you are here for subtle nuances — that you simply cherish that sound and that mood too much to deny yourself the pleasure of reliving the same dream on a new pillowsheet — then welcome to the club.

Proceeding in chronological order, the earliest inclusion is ʽGlassʼ, the only track here that had been previously released — on an early Factory Records sampler EP, originally released in late 1978 and featuring tracks from Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, and some minor acts. It still has very little of classic JD gloom and plays more like a regular post-punk rocker, all choppy chords and pulsating energy and an industrial-sounding distorted bassline that commands most of the attention. Ian sounds angry and pissed, with a bark in his voice that would rarely be heard again, but the song does not work well as a whole, because it is not dark enough to be spooky and not angry enough to make your blood boil.

The four April '79 outtakes from the Unknown Pleasures sessions are interesting, but I can feel pity only for ʽExercise Oneʼ — its sonic structure, with siren-like and tornado-like guitars swirling around a monotonous bassline, rather reminds me of Closer, and with better production the song might have occupied a respectable position on that album, bypassing the still-too-pop values of Unknown Pleasures. ʽWalked In Lineʼ and ʽThe Killʼ are frantic rockers, and both seem inspired by the likes of Brian Eno's ʽThird Uncleʼ — but, once again, lacking the depth and occasional scariness of the fast-paced material that did make it onto the album. And ʽThe Only Mistakeʼ is curious because of its waltzing tempo, but the song's chorus ("strain, take the strain, these days we love") sounds a bit silly, and whatever they wanted to say with the song, it does not look like they managed to say it distinctly.

As time went by and dark clouds became ever darker, the song titles began to reflect that, as well: the two outtakes from late '79 are named ʽIce Ageʼ and ʽDead Soulsʼ, respectively. The former has a beat so lively it would rather fit New Order than Joy Division, and the level of energy is so surprisingly high that I am tempted to regard Ian's prophetic exclamations of "living in an ice age, living in an ice age!" as more fit for Bad Religion. ʽDead Soulsʼ, having more to do with the cult of ancestors than Gogol's novel, is slower and more stately and might have fit better on Closer, but the heavy guitars are just... too heavy for this band. Plus, they sort of rip off the bridge section of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ without knowing it.

Chronologically the last song to be included here is ʽThe Sound Of Musicʼ, recorded during the same session as ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ — some lovely scratch guitar sounds here, every now and then breaking off into tortured melodic howls, but no proper vocal hook to speak of... all in all, listening to all these outtakes really makes you respect the band all the more, because lesser outfits (like the abovementioned Cabaret Voltaire, for instance) would have absolutely no problem populating their numerous records with this mediocre production. Joy Division, on the other hand, made sure that only those songs make it to the final line that actually tell a gripping story — these ones mostly don't.

Leaving aside the cover of ʽSister Rayʼ, which is mostly interesting just for the very fact of its existence, we should briefly cover the second disc — of tremendous historical importance, since that was the very last live show the band ever played, at Birmingham University on May 2, 1980. It is notable for containing a rare live version of the soon-to-be New Order song ʽCeremonyʼ, and for closing the concert with ʽDigitalʼ, an old song from the same EP that also contained ʽGlassʼ. It is also notable for featuring highly out-of-tune synths (particularly audible on ʽDecadesʼ), but otherwise the sound quality is tolerable — and, oh joy, they do ʽShadow Playʼ, with Sumner playing all the guitar solos... well, not perfectly, but as close to live perfection as possible. Other than that, well, it was just your average Joy Division live show; if you are interested in whether Ian Curtis gives any signs of sounding like a goner, then no, he does not. It's not like he'd been planning his suicide for months, anyway.

Overall, I would only recommend the album for very serious fans. Sometimes a collection of outtakes such as this, when arranged in chronological order, can very explicitly trace the creative evolution of a band and take you on a journey whose individual moments might not be very exciting, but whose overall arc drops you off at a point from which you can hardly see the begin­ning of the trip. This is not the case here, and not because Joy Division did not develop (on the contrary, their evolution from 1977 to 1980 was almost phenomenal by contemporary standards), but because, as it turns out, «mediocre Joy Division» tend to have a far more monotonous sound than «outstanding Joy Division». You are going to get a lot of inferior relatives of ʽInterzoneʼ and ʽShe's Lost Controlʼ, but you are not going to get any relatives of ʽDecadesʼ or ʽThe Eternalʼ or even ʽDay Of The Lordsʼ. But you are going to get some nifty bass grooves and a few nice guitar chords, and spend an additional 40 minutes (or 80, if you throw in the live album) in the company of the world's most sympathetic 23-year old martyr.

1 comment:

  1. I mostly agree with your review but I think that "Dead Souls" is one of their best songs. What's wrong with heavy guitars? Also, I think it is a shame that you can't hear the vocals on "Ceremony". There is a studio version you can find on YouTube.