Monday, February 08, 2010

Joy Division's Pop Moment

For some reason, people consider Joy Division above criticism... in the same way that for baby boomers, Jimi Hendrix is beyond criticism. They are artists who share similar trajectories and legacies, death punctuating their careers (I say "punctuated" because their careers have continued long after the deaths of Hendrix and Curtis). I'm not a terribly big fan of either, but I do understand why people tend to eulogize and worship them.

My discovery of Joy Division came with their compilation album Substance, which was basically a collection of random songs and singles which had not been featured on their two proper albums, Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980). I loved Substance, partly because it had a clear arc from its punk-ish first song ("Warsaw") to the inevitable and obvious concluding song "Love Will Tear Us Apart." People not into Joy Division but who are somewhat familiar with the name will know the latter song. It is famous for many reasons. The singer, Ian Curtis, after all, committed suicide only weeks after recording the song which ostensibly captured some inescapably poignant moment in his descent into desperation. But the song is also hummable, with a melancholy and maddeningly catchy melody, not difficult to dance to, aided by a propulsive drum beat advancing the minutes along. It's first and foremost a pop song, even if it emerged from the heart of the post-punk moment when discord and dissonance were the central aesthetics. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was for people who didn't really like or take to punk (or post-punk) but who could claim some modicum of hipness. Sort of like when liking R.E.M. in the eighties made you "edgy," you know, so you didn't actually have to listen to Husker Du or Mission of Burma. The song was made for a movie featuring John Cusack.

Yet, yet, yet, the song is undeniably beautiful and brilliant. It's not the best Joy Division song (probably "She's Lost Control" or "Isolation") but it may be the only song they ever recorded which had an emotionally vulnerable center. Ineffably sad. Like Polka dot sounded on the phone.

Here, then, is Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" followed by a version by (the?) Swans. The latter has been completely disavowed by Michael Gira as a horrible misstep but I find it strangely poignant in itself. Maybe it's because I know Gira's story too, which while not as terminally dramatic as that of Ian Curtis is still a story of sadness.

No comments: