Joy Division album less convincing than original
A Means to an End: The Music of Joy Division
By Stacey E. Blau
In the realm of dead rock stars, Joy Division's Ian Curtis occupies one of the more glorified, if not one of the more obscure, thrones of tortured consecration among fans. Ian Curtis led the little-commercially-known but vastly influential late 1970s and early 80s group Joy Division, a band whose music magnified the potential of punk into an art of magnetic and compelling self-doubt and isolation.
Joy Division had a sound like no other band at the time, and that sound influenced a good part of British music that followed in the 80s, including many successful bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Now, fifteen years after Curtis's epilepsy - and chronic-depression-induced suicide that somewhat dubiously catapulted the band to cult stardom - young American bands are paying tribute to an influence of theirs, and an influence of their influences, on A Means to an End: The Music of Joy Division, an album of Joy Division covers that includes bands like Honeymoon Stitch and Codeine.
Joy Division's continuing importance to so many bands seems most visible within the context of punk. Punk in the 70s ripped away the pretensions of rock music to the simple emotion of unfocused anger. But after a few years of punk's inarticulate fury there arose a need to express more complex emotions with the same anger, and that's what Joy Division did.
Songs like "No Love Lost," "Atrocity Exhibition," and "Something Must Break" expressed a horror, isolation, and a loss of control never articulated by punk bands of the same era like the Sex Pistols. Songs like "Disorder" and "Transmission" were organized around related themes like social failure and set to music with an unexpected uplifting despair that seemed strangely fitting but so uncalculated. The songs were always coherent and compelling and never premeditated or jaded.
This album of covers takes on the not-so-simple task of re-interpreting what these songs mean and producing viable, believable versions of them. It's a task at which a good part of the album fails to deliver completely. The most obvious piece missing from the album is anything remotely resembling Curtis, who is mostly responsible for making Joy Division so inexplicably magnetic. Curtis's lyrics and his shaky, faltering voice that always seemed on the verge of something horrible is nearly impossible to reproduce. But the purpose of a cover album is not to duplicate the original. Instead it is to shape the old into something new worth listening to, albeit for maybe slightly different reasons.
Some of the songs on the album are definitely more than worth just listening to, and those are the ones that work with and exploit Joy Division's magical urgency. But too many of the others take the framework of the songs keeping some of Joy Division - like the loud guitars and droning vocals - and turn what was persistent and frenzied and compelling into something monotonous and dull.
As for the start of the album, Girls Against Boys' cover of "She's Lost Control" is excellent, as is Honeymoon Stitch's "Day of the Lords." Both manage pretty convincing and interesting takes on the songs, and they retain much of the edginess of the originals. "Day of the Lords" in particular seems to highlight quite well many of the original version's subtleties. Further's "Insight" and Desert Storm's "Warsaw" are both inventive and riveting. They owe much to the originals but take them in new directions that are pleasantly surprising, if irreverent.
But all too many of the covers seem dull, if not plainly ridiculous. Joy Division's most famous song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," receives shameless and shabby treatment from Stanton-Miranda, and "Transmission," one of Joy Division's more pop-like songs, is so completely slowed down that it is hopelessly boring and painful to listen to. Several of the other songs, like Moby's "New Dawn Fades" and Codeine's "Atmosphere" are slowed down as well, with similarly dull results. The album does pick up at the towards the end with Kendra Smith's "Heart and Soul" and Tortoise's "As You Said," but these noteworthy exceptions seem unfortunately misplaced among the albums other misfires.
Too many of the bands covering the songs seem too young and almost inexperienced with their sound. Joy Division was a a short-lived band and therefore young when it made basically all of its music, but somehow it seemed that their youth, inexperience, and even slight technical incompetence with their instruments manifested itself more in their extreme urgency, edginess, and listenability than in any sort of lack of maturity in the band's sound. But Joy Division's immediacy seems to be the precise crucial element that too many of the cover bands lack, and in its place is an undeveloped sound that often seems incongruous manipulating Joy Division's music.
Overall, the album is usually pretty listenable, and the really good covers are a pleasant surprise. It is heartening to see young bands still paying tribute to such an important musical influence as Joy Division, and maybe even particularly relevant in the context of the past few years, which have seen a slight rebirth of punk with the sudden appearance and tragic exit of Nirvana.
But it is unclear that there that there is any obvious candidate to expand on what Nirvana had to say - just corporate junk like Offspring and Green Day. Joy Division picked up where punk left off and paved the way for many of the new-wave bands of the 1980s. It will be interesting to see if any bands of the current talented crop - like Smashing Pumpkins - emerge in the next few years to carry the torch.