JOY DIVISIONHeart and Souls (London)

The least funny great band in the history of rock music, Joy Division formed in the industrial gloom of late-1970s Manchester, England. By the time lead singer Ian Curtis hung himself on the eve of the group's first U.S. tour in 1980, they had produced two terrifying albums, a handful of singles, and one of the more dangerous myths ever to transfix a significant portion of the youth culture. Eighteen years later – as London Records' exquisitely packaged and sequenced new four-CD box, Heart and Souls, illustrates – they remain an enigma, a magnificent ensemble whose work engendered most of the worst excesses of new-wave pop and appeared to authenticate the long-perceived and increasingly celebrated connection between rock & roll and self-destruction.

Ask most of the early-'80s musicians whose bands relied on lyrics about dead people, roboticized percussion, gaseous keyboards, whiteface and lipstick where they went to moroseness school, and every one of them will mention Joy Division. Indeed, the pall that Joy Division cast over what would eventually be called alternative music lingers still, attracting numerous impressionable songwriters into the genre's most shadowy corners, where songs dissolve into empty style and the desire to rock out or rise up or transcend suffocates in a miasmic malaise.

More disturbingly, Curtis' death, and the way his death validates his work for so many people, may well be vector points in the path of this century's popular culture. Ever since the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, rock musicians and fans alike have implied (and sometimes actively sought) a connection between this music and dying. In the late '60s, especially, death made rock an extreme sport: Lean too far over this abyss, and it could claim you.

But when news about Ian Curtis reached this coast, the tiny San Diego punk/new-wave scene I was struggling to fit myself into went psychotic. At the second party I ever attended, I saw a blue-haired girl stumble out of a kitchen spraying blood from her arm like it was a paint can. In her other hand she was holding the knife she'd used to carve IAN C. in her skin.

Even the people who didn't like the band appeared vaguely thrilled by their dramatic end (they would return as New Order). It seemed to prove that Joy Division wasn't kidding, that the darkness they so relentlessly addressed was real, and loose in the world. And ever since then, mental illness, savage addiction and manic depression have been sanctioned in our rockers as stamps of legitimacy. Once a dark fantasy, the rock-death connection has become a fetish; if the abyss doesn't claim you, you aren't leaning far enough into it.

And yet: Where so much '80s gloom-pop sounds bilious and pretentious now, the music on Heart and Souls continues to generate a forbidding, remote allure. Prettier tracks such as “Atmosphere” come on like slow-motion avalanches, with Stephen Morris' relentless rhythms tumbling over flint-edged guitar and bass work from Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook and the surprisingly colorful keyboards orchestrated by producer Martin Hannett. On twitchier cuts like “Digital,” the whole band jerks and squirms and occasionally erupts into stomps and guitar wails but can't escape the walls Curtis warns are “closing in.” On “The Eternal,” the band is a glacier, crawling to nowhere on an icy piano riff and unplaceable background hiss.

Over it all floats Curtis, who at times is very nearly Poe. Lift his lyrics out of the songs and they're mundane, occasionally ludicrous: “Don't walk away in silence”; “Love will tear us apart.” Listen to them over that haunted music, in that desperately contained voice – the voice of someone perpetually holding himself in and down – and they become talismans, like the hideous eye that drives the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” to murder.

There's a story in Jon Savage's excellent essay in the booklet for Heart and Souls about one especially ghastly Joy Division performance. Curtis, who suffered from severe epilepsy, evidently derived inspiration for his maniacal windmilling of limbs onstage from his seizures. At this particular show, Curtis danced more and more frenetically, and the frightened band finally tried to end a song prematurely. But when the song did end, Curtis kept windmilling, crashing into the drums in the midst of a raging epileptic fit.

I reject the idea that Ian Curtis' suicide makes this music real. The power of his art is in the art. But it's hard not to see in Savage's story a metaphor for the myth of Curtis' life, if not his life itself. This isn't someone who leaned into the abyss. The abyss was in him, and all the singing and shivering he could muster weren't ever going to get it out.

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