Much More Than Just a T-Shirt: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures

If you’ve went outside sometime recently you’ve probably seen somebody wearing this t-shirt.

Joy Division’s classic 1979 album Unknown Pleasures features one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Even if you’ve never heard of the album, or Joy Division at all, you’ve seen the cover. With that being said, it sometimes feels as if the amazing art work of the album has eclipsed the album itself. Unknown Pleasures is one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and is an innovator in the post-punk genre.

The album opens up with the track “Disorder”, which features an up-tempo, funky beat. The danceability of the instrumentation is presented in an almost ironic fashion, as lead singer Ian Curtis sings lyrics about desiring normalcy and acceptance while suffering from a looming sense of chaos that constantly prevents him from achieving this state. The rest of the album more closely follows the sorrow filled tone of Curtis’ lyrics, as it dials back the tempo and ramps up the reverb. Distant drums and mournful guitars drip the instrumentation in sorrow, and the echoing synths further the depressing tone. Though the album features the simplicity of punk songwriting, it strips down the genre’s trademark primality. Instead, it transforms the sound into one of alienation. Alienation and the loss of control are the central themes of the album, as Curtis dreadfully describes himself as feeling like a bystander in his own life.

The production of the album is equally as innovative as its music. Legendary producer Martin Hannett thought the genre of punk music was too sonically conservative, due to its focus on live performances and reluctance towards studio technology. Hannett used the studio to give the music a sense of sonic space, in that the listener can feel a sense of distance from both the vocals and each part of the instrumentation. This perfectly aligns with the albums’ sense of loneliness, as the reverb and use of space immerse the listener into Joy Divisions world of dread. The doomy atmosphere and echoing sense of sorrow take the relatively simple instrumentation of the band to a whole new level. Hannett embraced background noise and non-instrumental sounds, such as the sounds of broken glass and the shot of a replica pistol.

Unknown Pleasures deserves its spot on the post-punk hall of fame. From its dramatic rework of punk instrumentation to its atmospheric, mournful production, to its alienated lyrics, the album never strays from its sorrowful, intimate roots.