Friday, September 17, 2010

The Best of Joy Division

With a name that contradicts the barely containable terror and sense of impending doom that comprises the band’s stock in trade, Joy Division was one of post-punk’s foremost acts, turning out distinctive songs that were visceral and cerebral at the same time, filled to the brim with requisite amounts of vitriol, as well as remorse and guilt. Needless to say, countless miserablist-themed contemporary music genres (e.g. neo-psychedelia, sadcore, Goth-rock, the Paisley Underground and shoegazing) all had their roots in the unique brand of post-punk that Joy Division espoused in their short existence between 1977 to 1980.

The late, perpetually troubled Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s tragic poet-cum-musical martyr frontman, was the band’s most recognisable feature, instantly distinguishable by his desolate, all-hope-is-gone, elegiac lyrics, his monotone-like yet affecting vocals, and perhaps most striking of all, his disturbingly kinetic, almost-epileptic stage flailings, the infamous 'fly dance'. Of course, Joy Division wasn’t simply Curtis alone, despite his overwhelming, awe-inspiring presence: his bandmates were as integral a part of the band as he was. If not for Bernard Sumner’s corrosive, ragged guitar riffs, Peter Hook’s ghostly, high-register bass lines, and Stephen Morris’ astonishingly precise powerhouse drumming, Joy Division would merely be one of a few million post-punk outfits littering the fertile musical landscape of the late 1970s.

For the curious neophyte who don't want to splurge on 1997's exhaustive box set 'Heart and Soul', 2008's single-disc compendium 'The Best of Joy Division' is the next best thing, a commendable attempt that gathers the more notable moments of the band’s brief lifespan. And it does a rather spiffy job too, successfully bringing together all the artistic and lyrical elements and nuances that made the group such a persuasive musical force, even after nearly 30 years after their disbandment.

The compilation opens with the distressed-sounding, desperately forbidding ‘Digital’, a perfect showcase for the band’s remarkable, almost instinctive synergy, highlighted by a moaning, anguished vocal from Curtis. The equally forbidding ‘Disorder’ follows, building up to a dramatic climax before fading out into the rumbling ‘Shadow Play’, with its shards of jagged guitar and pounding percussion framing a desolate travelogue of some unnamed inner-city locale.

Elsewhere, there is the slow-crawling, intensely theatrical, utterly depressing ‘New Dawn Fades’, a prototypical Goth-rock composition that paves the way for outfits like Fields of the Nephilim and The Mission. The evergreen death-disco stomper ‘Transmission’ is of course present, along with other Joy Division classics like the epic, black-tiled sonic cathedral ‘Atmosphere’, the brutally unrelenting, relentlessly fearful ‘Dead Souls’, and the chilling, claustrophobic ‘She’s Lost Control’, containing some of the most morbid lyrics Curtis has penned. The indisputable centrepiece is of course the band’s signature song ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (deemed by the departed Kurt Cobain as “the greatest song of all time”), still bleakly stately as ever in its narrative of a fractured relationship.

Other highlights of Joy Davison’s career canvassed here are the skittish, restless ‘These Days’, marked by Morris’ extraordinary, suitably anxious percussion work and a busy, almost funk-rock-informed bass groove, the echoing, starkly spectral six-minute ‘Heart and Soul’ (which also lent its name to the authoritative, exhaustive 1997 Joy Division box set), and the histrionic, height-of-joylessness lament ‘Twenty Four Hours’, which could well be the most distressing and devastating composition in the band’s entire oeuvre (complete with the knowing line “Just for one moment, I thought I'd found my way/destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away”).

In a nutshell, ‘The Best of Joy Division’ does constitute one of the more compelling records of Joy Division’s music, and a true testament to the genius of the late, lamented Curtis. Even if the tracks here might seem inhospitable and detached for the first-time listener, subsequent hearings will reveal sonically interesting details and remarkable textures that all contribute toward Joy Division’s stature as one of the most important rock bands of the late 20th century. But be warned, this is not for the faint of heart, so mainstream chart fans are well-advised to steer clear of this bleakly despondent and forbidding, but utterly virtuosic and exceptional anthology.


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