Joy Division couldn't stand still. After introducing the listener to a world of shadow, unspeakable beauty, hopeless vulnerability, terror and love so pure it contains loss &emdash; not only via Curtis' lyrics but in the music's totality &emdash; the band needed to move on to the next signpost, the next weigh station of the unknowable.
In the late 1970s, in the aftermath of punk's self-consuming, self-absorbed disintegration, Joy Division changed everything. This quartet from Manchester, England, went, in a very brief time, from just another three-chord-wielding bunch of louts called Warsaw, who took themselves too seriously, to become an entity that challenged you to believe that music could take you to places you never really dreamed you could go, and perhaps never wanted to. As Paul Morely states so accurately in his liner notes: "Joy Division showed me with a dizzying dip of the mind, the dark."
This four-CD box set, comprising 80 tracks (about five hours), includes virtually everything the band ever recorded. It contains both studio albums, all of the singles, live material, both John Peel sessions and a number of studio demos and alternate takes. There are even early, rough studio versions of "Ceremony" and "In a Lonely Place" with Curtis on vocals &emdash; these songs comprised New Order's first single when the remaining band members continued after Curtis' death.
The package is handsome beyond belief, a long box that presents itself like a landscape designed in typical Factory fashion by Peter Saville, Jon Wozencroft and Howard Wakefield. There are plenty of gorgeous photographs and plenty to read, not only by Morely and John Savage but reflections by the remaining band members themselves. The lyrics are all here, courtesy of Deborah Curtis, Ian's widow.
But package and legend aside, it's the music that is most mysterious. Nearly 20 years after the band's dissolution, it still sounds so forward, so out of time and place as to be not only current but perhaps even timeless. In four minutes of any Joy Division song, one could enter worlds of pain, loss, rage and rebirth (or, alternately, travel those worlds in the reverse order). Influenced by the Velvet Underground and punk rock, Joy Division went far beyond those entities in search of something that was unobtainable in rock 'n' roll. Rock was only the place where these artists looked together to make the world of appearances disappear. This disappearance happened somewhere inside the music, in a split between rhythm and lyric, where guitars and drums forced each other to take comfort in something that was too large, open and unwieldy to be contained within a song.
Joy Division took on the pop world and did everything wrong; but it did so only to take the music one step further out of the pop context and one step deeper into the world of human beings. The band was hidden, never flashy &emdash; issuing singles that never appeared on albums, playing manic sets that were never quite finished, taking upon itself the kind of discovery that pop music is never supposed to even be acquainted with.
These musicians were foolishly young enough to think that not only could they make money at playing music, but that they actually could effect permanent change. They left just a small bit of music and an echo that still rings as the guitars and drums just clatter into the future. Joy Division, as these records attest, is still out there on some wasted frontier looking for something uncontained or possessed by either lyrics, music or mix. It falls apart endlessly as it takes us through the sound tracks of our lives.
The records in this set are not for reflection or merely documentation; they still point a way toward what might be, not only in the future of pop but in the darkened hallways of the human heart. The music heeds Ian Curtis' own dictum from the song "Atmosphere": "Don't walk away in silence."
As pop, Joy Division failed, because its music hasn't become disposable or dismissible. It has become art by virtue not only of its influence and longevity, but in its willingness to shroud itself in mystery, challenging not just rock and roll but the nature of aesthetic life itself. Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]