With the exception of Joy Division's last single, Love Will Tear Us Apart, which faded out gradually into the anguished silence of singer Ian Curtis' suicide, none of the band's songs ever really ended; they either fell apart or collapsed, as if to bring about a proper end to something beyond their grasp. 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 and death, not only in Curtis' lyrics but in the music's totality and power, the band needed to move on to the next signpost, the next weighstation of the unknowable. In the late '70s, 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. This four-CD box set, comprising 80 tracks (about five hours), includes virtually everything the band ever recorded. It was originally issued in the U.K. in 1997, and available only sporadically as a ridiculously expensive import. The Warner Bros. edition is identical with the exception of the quality of the paper stock used on the box's cover; it's a bit thinner, but also a bit glossier, so it's a tradeoff (this writer prefers the American issue). It contains all of the Warsaw material, both studio albums (Unknown Pleasures and Closer), all of the singles, live material, both John Peel sessions, and a number of studio demos and alternate takes. Among the singles, there are the tracks from the very-limited-edition Sordide Sentimental single "Atmosphere" b/w "Dead Souls" and the Earcom 2 compilation tracks "Autosuggestion" and "From Safety to Where...?" There are even early, rough studio versions of "Ceremony" and "In a Lonely Place" with Curtis on vocals; these songs comprised New Order's first single when the remaining band members continued after Curtis' death. As Paul Morley states so accurately in his liner notes: "Joy Division showed me with a dizzying dip of the mind, the dark."
The package is handsome beyond belief, a long box that presents itself like a landscape designed in typical Factory Records fashion by Peter Saville, Jon Wozencroft, and Howard Wakefield. There are plenty of gorgeous photographs and plenty to read, not only by Morley and John Savage but also reflections by the remaining bandmembers 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 also 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 & 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, issuing singles that never appeared on albums and playing manic sets that never quite ended. Joy Division took upon itself the kind of discovery that pop music is never supposed to acquaint itself with.
These musicians were foolish, young enough to think that not only could they make money at playing their own torridly alienated and lonely brand of pop music, but that they actually could effect permanent change -- if only in their own lives. They left just a small bit of music and an echo that still rings as the guitars and drums clatter on into the future. Joy Division, as these recordings bear witness to, is still out there on some wasted frontier looking for something uncontained or possessed by lyrical considerations, notes churning in the void, or a murky, echoplexed mix. Its music falls apart endlessly as it takes listeners through the moments in their own lives that require a soundtrack. 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 a pop band, 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 by its willingness to shroud itself in mystery, challenging not just rock & roll and its now predictable stasis of convention, but the nature of aesthetic life (i.e., art) itself. As a result, this collection is among the most essential relics from the post-punk era.