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Friday, January 26, 2018

Joy Division: Substance

JOY DIVISION: SUBSTANCE (1988; 1978-1980)

1) Warsaw; 2) Leaders Of Men; 3) Digital; 4) Autosuggestion; 5) Transmission; 6) She's Lost Control; 7) Incubation; 8) Dead Souls; 9) Atmosphere; 10) Love Will Tear Us Apart; 11*) No Love Lost; 12*) Failures; 13*) Glass; 14*) From Safety To Where...?; 15*) Novelty; 16*) Komakino; 17*) These Days.

General verdict: An obligatory companion to the LPs — the band's entire lifestory as reflected in (damn good) music.

Still might be expendable, but Substance is the real deal. Another compilation, this one arrived at the dawn of the CD age, and its full CD version diligently collected most of the non-LP A-sides, B-sides, EPs, and shares on collective EPs that the band released over two years — nothing that was not previously available, but even in 1988, few people would go around scrounging for old 45's. Not coincidentally, the same year also saw the release of The Beatles' Past Masters, and it is nice to see Joy Division having gotten the comprehensive treatment as well so early on.

The tracks are mostly arranged in chronological order, with the exception that CD-exclusive tracks are tacked on at the end: if you have a digital copy, I highly recommend moving them to where they actually belong, so that the main line of Joy Division's evolution becomes fully transparent. At the very least, it feels a bit odd to have the young, crude, punkish Ian Curtis bark and sneer his way through ʽNo Love Lostʼ immediately after the so-much-younger-now, refined, romantic Ian Curtis dark-croons his way through ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ.

Anyone who is only familiar with the band's two major albums will be pleasantly surprised to learn that in the beginning, Joy Division were just a punk band — their first EP, An Ideal For Living, recorded in December '77, shows absolutely no signs of the doom and depression that would permeate their music one year later. Curtis opens ʽWarsawʼ, the first song on the EP that essentially opened Joy Division for the world and the world for Joy Division, with a rousing "3-5-0-1-2-5, GO!", much like Paul McCartney opened up The Beatles with the "one-two-three-four!" of ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ, and the first heavy, snappy guitar chords of the song might as well come from The Adverts or The Damned or any other respectable punk outfit of the era. Ian's lyrics at this point are angry and frustrated rather than fatalistic, and his voice bears no resem­blance to Jim Morrison whatsoever; and Sumner plays some of the wildest, choppiest, fastest, sloppiest licks of his career on ʽWarsawʼ and ʽFailuresʼ.

Is this early music good music? Well, the band has a good groove going on, and some of Sum­ner's riffs stick around — but I think it is safe to say that there is nothing particularly special about this sound, that Joy Division hadn't really found their own voice by then (they did find their name, though: I do believe that the Nazi-themed appellation better fits their early punkish stage, which still had a slightly «offensive» vibe, than the classic years). The first signs of the «classic» Joy Division arrive with ʽDigitalʼ and ʽGlassʼ off the Factory Sample EP — coming exactly one year after, this is where we find Curtis approbating his new gravelly voice, and the entire band essentially moving from «punk» to «post-punk», with funkier and more industrialized rhythm section grooves, more broken-up guitar riffs, and the first faint traces of brutal fatalism. Even so, their sound here is fairly generic — everybody, from Wire to Siouxsie & The Banshees, was playing this kind of stuff around 1978.

The first true JD classic here, of course, is ʽTransmissionʼ. The deep dark bass, the deep dark suicidal voice, the odd danceability of the song, the excruciating wail of the lead guitar, the ironically inane "dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio" chorus that parodies, mocks, and annihilates the very idea of having mindless fun — funny enough, it does not exactly sound like anything on Unknown Pleasures, released a few months before the single, precisely because it seems to, sarcastically, pander a bit to the dance-crazy crowds, just like a potential hit single should in 1979. The B-side, ʽNoveltyʼ, with its monumentally mournful ʽI Want You (She's So Heavy)ʼ vibe in the deceivingly brief intro, is a better fit for Pleasures, but, as befits a B-side, seems a bit underworked — no solid hook or memorable guitar riff.

Two more outtakes from Unknown Pleasures, originally emerging on the collective EP Earcom 2: Contradiction, sound exactly like any other track on there, but I have mixed feelings about the slowly plodding six-minute monster ʽAuto-Suggestionʼ — it seems to me like a less appealing, more meandering relative of ʽI Remember Nothingʼ: the band has not quite worked out a definite groove here, so it seems more like a Curtis poetry recital against a lazy background. Essentially, ʽI Remember Nothingʼ does everything this song tries to do and gets it right, so I can understand why they preferred to dump this one on an EP that nobody ever bought. I do like the relative shortness and the quirky, mousey bassline on ʽFrom Safety To Where...?ʼ.

Skipping a bit ahead, the last period in Joy Division's history was also oddly split, mood-wise, between LPs and singles. On one hand, you have Closer, with pretty much each of the songs on it either a nightmarish vision or a lament for the end of the world — on the other hand, you have ʽAtmosphereʼ and ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ, two songs that aren't exactly the epitome of happi­ness, of course, but show a tender-sensitive side to Ian that actually proves he is capable of sending out positive vibes to his imaginary correspondents (well, after all, so also did Jim Morri­son, and Curtis could not allow himself to lag behind his idol in anything). A possible problem with ʽAtmosphereʼ, the band's slow, solemn, celestial prayer, is that it clearly displays the limita­tions of Ian's voice — he was a technically weak singer, barely capable of holding prolonged notes, and you have to have the trademark «Keith Richards excuse» (of the «yes, he is hitting all the wrong notes, but it is SO much his soul that is singing, man!» variety) to tear up in the proper places, which is a bit hard for me to do.

ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ has no such problem, although I could personally never place it in my top 10 Joy Division tracks — the brilliance of the title is not quite enough to remedy the strange production decision of «losing» Ian's voice somewhere in between the tracks (although this can be remedied by listening to the original version from Pennine Studios, which is sometimes appended as an extra bonus track to Substance), and the shrill synthesizer lead part is an acquired taste, too. I guess what really rubs me the wrong way about the song is how it tries to accom­modate a happy vibe and a tragic vibe at the same time, and in this particular case, one somehow outcancels the other for me, leaving me somewhat indifferent to the singer's plight in the end. Others might find this musical contradiction charmingly enigmatic, but what can we do here? gut reactions cannot be fooled.

In any case, the song is a legit classic, and the best way to own it is by owning Substance as a whole — charting Joy Division's journey from punk to post-punk to who-needs-punk-when-we're-all-dying-inside, and even with a bit of last minute romantic spirit on the side. Few have been blessed with such an eventful journey over the course of a measly two-and-a-half years, and those who have been blessed... well, they're dead, kind of. Remember this when you're listening: what you're listening to is one man's speedy journey to the afterlife, etched in tapes and digits for the sakes of our personal entertainment. If that ain't «substance», I don't know what is.


  1. I always thought "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was intentionally being contradictory. The song's poppy and charming, but those lyrics shit on the vibe. It's tounge in cheek.

    Will you be reviewing Joy Division's live albums next?

  2. Will you be moving on to New Order after you are done with Joy Division? I think that New Order's situation was comparable to post-Barrett Pink Floyd (the main difference being that NO's transitional phase was much shorter) and that they deserve to be part of the same general narrative with Joy Division.