Joy Division’s seminal album Unknown Pleasures features a lot of really strong, authentic, and just really really good tracks. From its opener Disorder to the final track I Remember Nothing. Every track is good, and it’s no shock it remains one of the greatest albums of all time.
Joy Division’s music was always filled with a very pessimistic, jaded view on love and relationships – shaped by Ian Curtis and his failing marriage. The lyrics downbeat and never about falling in love as much as falling out of love, that’s if they even wrote about relationships. Much of the tracks off the seminal work Unknown Pleasures reflect the misanthropic and nihilistic view Curtis had towards his own existence.
Tracks like Shadowplay reflect that he felt his life, like hand puppets in a literal shadowplay, was a show for everyone but the one performing. Shadowplay is also probably my favourite Joy Division song. It boasts some of Curtis’ best lyrics and my personal stand-out verse from any song:
In the shadowplay, acting out your own death
Knowing no more
As the assassins all grouped in four lines
Dancing on the floor
And with cold steel, odour on their bodies
Made a move to connect
But I could only stare in disbelief
As the crowds all left
But who or what are the assassins? What’s it all about?
I always took the assassins grouped in four lines, dancing on the floor to be the crowd. The audience at their gigs. A cynical way of looking at it, but would match up with Ian Curtis and his how he felt alienated from people. His description of them with the cold steel of their 70’s punk aesthetic, odour of sweat, and disillusionment with him on stage.
But here’s the punchline to this very write-up:
He makes a move to connect with the audience, but never feels like they truly understand. Hell, I don’t really understand what Curtis means with his lyrics. They’re coded in metaphor and allegory and this is my best attempt at deciphering one of my favourite tracks.
Shadowplay is ultimately about one of the struggles of being an artist – you attempt to pour your soul out but nobody will ever truly understand you. You’ll gain a cult following but nobody has a true clue who you were or what you stood for. Ian Curtis is shrouded in myth and legend now – and there’s some beauty to that.