On the 40th anniversary of Joy Division’s bleak and beautiful second album, David Edwards takes a look back at a record that still resonates with an intense aural and emotional weight, and pays tribute to the singular brilliance and legacy of the late, great Ian Curtis.
On the eighteenth of May 1980, alone in the silent small hours of a quiet Macclesfield Sunday morning, an ordinary young man of only twenty-three years reached the end of his own road. Just over twenty-four hours before a US tour that would have likely seen the band’s commercial and critical breakthrough into the mainstream, Ian Curtis, one of the most gifted and brilliant songwriters in the history of British music, took his own life.
The tragedy and pure grief of Curtis’s lonesome death is purely that – a tragedy for those who knew him and to a lesser extent, those who followed him and Joy Division over an extraordinary creative period where in the space of only three years, he and his colleagues rewrote the rules. It was not romantic; it was not beautiful. It was a miserable, blunt end to the short but forever-echoing life of a man who seemed to see beyond the grey borders of this world and into something fundamentally deeper and more profound. And ultimately, along with his own personal life seemingly spiralling beyond his grasp, it proved too much for him. He would never know the adoration of his words, or the intense connection with his narratives that would echo across the decades. Curtis – the now iconic artist, who would have sworn and scoffed mockingly at the idea that he could ever be such a thing. He was just a man. A man who had a rare gift: true and special; yet carried irreconcilable demons deep within him, like so many of us less-articulate human beings also bear.
Writing about art from people who are so clearly associated with death, tragedy and catastrophe is difficult. Is it right for example, to acknowledge the influence of Vincent van Gogh’s mental instability on the increasingly fractured, bold, and disturbing reflections of beauty and normality that appeared in his work? Or do we simply remark on the virtues of the canvas in front of us? Is it wrong or crass to over-elaborate on the creator rather than the creation; avoiding the risk of over-emphasising the roots of the work, rather than the actual fruit?
As such, any retrospective appraisal of Closer – Joy Division’s complex, cavernous, and ethereally brilliant second album – is difficult to balance. Released on the eighteenth of July 1980, a mere 61 days after that dark morning on Barton Street, Closer serves simultaneously as a validation on the band’s remarkable musical ability to contorting emotion into music form, as well as a genuine lament for what could have been: both musically and personally. But as much as one would like to escape the dark fronds of its creation, there is simply no way of separating the lyrical and musical themes of the album from the heartrending circumstances surrounding Curtis’s death and the preceding months that saw its creation. They are linked thematically, personally and emotionally; forever entangled in a hybrid of grief, loss, despair and fury that fuel a record that quite simply, is one of the greatest albums ever released and one which equally clangs, scratches screams and sings with unblemished power and beauty through time. And as much as there are few debuts in musical history to compare with Unknown Pleasures, there is arguably nothing to compare with the sheer emotional vivisection that takes place within the forty-four flawless minutes of Closer.
Recorded in just under two weeks at Britannia Row Studios during the early spring of 1980, Closer represented an unexpected moment of musical transition. Meeting in the middle were the earlier, tried-and-tested guitar tracks such as Colony and Twenty-Four Hours, intersecting with Stephen Morris’s growing fascination with drum machines and Curtis and Bernard Sumner’s intrigue with synthesizers and electronic music, spurred on by the free-thinking approach of producer Martin Hannett. As such, Closer has a distinctive other-worldly quality. Whilst Unknown Pleasures was referred to by one author as a “haunted council estate” – dark, gritty and dangerous – there is a sense of the netherworld about Closer. Synth lines sidle disturbingly into the mix – punctuating the tension on Isolation and Passover, whilst Curtis’s voice is wrapped in a cloaking, unsettling timbre on Isolation and Colony. Whilst Unknown Pleasures sounded like Hitchcockian observations from the tenth-floor tenement tower, Closer muses more deeply on the underbelly of the human condition: on life, death, birth, and the feral pained nature of existence.
The album is cleaved starkly in two. The first side – beginning with the apocalyptic crawl of Atrocity Exhibition – is the disdain and the battle. At this point, there is still hope for escape. The cyclical, incessant drums burrow headlong the barbwire of Sumner’s scabrous guitars whilst Curtis narrates the way across the fetid landscape of human history. A neutral guide: a horrified, yet fascinated observer. At this point it is not yet personal. Yet the slanted circus master’s “This is the way, step inside” beckoning tells us that what is within the tent will not be what we expect, before the music surges threateningly from the swamp and confirms this, with the unconvincing and disconcerting urge of “Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be” falling on stony ground as the bass and drums rise in opposition.
Isolation rages viciously against the scars of loss and alienation. And this song hurts – you truly feel it’s pain. It’s most famous lyric – so frequently quoted – nonetheless remains gut-wrenching: thinking that a human being thought this, wrote these words, and spoke them out loud:
“Mother I’ve tried please believe me
I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through
I’m ashamed of the person I am”
The calm honesty of the lyrics however, is offset by the gathering clouds represented by the taut and unsettled military stomp of the beat and the queasy, unsettling arrangement – different strands ghostly floating in the mix. Yet there still is cause for resolution in Curtis’s words: “But if you could just see the beauty / these things I could never describe / These pleasures and wayward distractions / Is it my one true prize”. Hope, though buried deep, is still within grasp.
By the time Passover comes around however, the cracks are clearly showing. “This is the crisis I knew had to come / destroying the balance I kept” echoes dispassionately as muscular bass, taut-wire guitar chords and uncomfortable keyboard stabs disturb the silty depths. Colony is positively insectoid in its claustrophobic threat, continually lurching from furious, murderous drums and bass, then to preacher on-the-hill-lyrics, then to torturous scythes of treble-sharpened guitar, then back again. Musically, it is extraordinarily powerful – the four quartets of the band tessellating to craft a creation of equal parts beauty and terror. And ‘A Means to an End’ documents the anguished, slow torment of a failing relationship amidst an oppressive death-disco 4/4 beat. “Is this your goal, your final needs? / Where dogs and vultures eat / Committed still, I turn to go / I put my trust in you”. For much of the album, Curtis hides his fears and despair behind obtuse imagery and metaphor – the change to such base allegory and the increasingly desperate repletion of the final line signals the loss of the fight and the embracing of the inevitable.
From this point onwards, Closer inhabits a world where nothing will be the same again. The second half of the record moves step by painful step as it marches towards its own conclusion and towards a culmination of Joy Division’s career: veering between anger, torment, acceptance and release.
Heart and Soul is a netherworld: a haunted, restless dream. Curtis appears to be talking from a distant realm as the swirl of Jaki Liebezeit-esque circular drums and swooning, leering synths circle above your head. It is detached, calm and forensic – almost Faustian in its defence of logic against the looming fires of faith and torment. We as listeners are positioned right in the middle: “Heart and soul / one will burn”. But which will it be? And the testing, chaotic storm of Martin Hannett’s production offers us no definitive answer and no release: Peter Hook’s testing, omnipresent bass eventually meets with the slashes of guitar in a fight that leaves no winner, only a scorched and alien earth. And then there is its earth-tethered sibling Twenty Four Hours. A song that is physically affecting in its intensity and pain. You are hammered by the drums, mortally wounded by the howls emanating from Bernard Sumner’s guitar. Bewitched by the singing, chorded bass lines. And yet there is no escape from what lies below. “Just for one moment, I heard somebody call / Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all”. You realise, terrifyingly that there is a real sense of emptiness and finality here. And just as you are taking this all in, the music rises and strikes you with another tumult of rhythmical punches and slashes. This is where we are. There is no escape. We must stay and we must witness.
The conclusion of this all – the final act – remains amongst the most enduring and beautiful climaxes to any album. In all my years listening to music, I have yet to hear a single song as utterly devastating and yet so staggeringly beautiful as The Eternal. A song where no note is wasted. A song with a driven funeral-march for a bass line – so bleak and beautiful it should be dressed in a perfectly-cut mourning suit of black velvet. A vocal that sounds as weary and as lost as humanly possible. A song where the mere instrumentation seems to be weeping uncontrollably – shuddering and sobbing with every beat. And a song that contains possibly the most disarming lyric of all time. Curtis, a father of less than one year, dispassionately intoning the lines “Cry like a child, though these years make me older / With children my time is so wastefully spent / A burden to keep, though they’re inner communion / Accept like a curse, an unlucky deal”. Even after all these years, it remains one of the most shocking, barely conceivable lyrics ever recorded. Yet the song itself is a creation of miraculous, hypnotic beauty – conveying the overwhelming spasm of paralysis that comes from utter grief without the slightest hint of hyperbole. You cannot bear the existential weight, yet you simply cannot turn away. It is six minutes of transcendent perfection.
And then, Decades takes the album through the veil of existence and beyond the cloying grip of this mortal plane – either to salvation, or mere welcome acceptance. Though Curtis refers plurally to “the young men”, it is difficult to shake the idea that he is referring implicitly to the passage of his own soul and spirit. It reads like a life review – a slideshow of losses, grief, the passage of youth’s simplicity and the creeping grasp of adulthood, as the physical body moves into the slow embrace of darkness. “We knocked on the door of hell’s darker chambers / pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in”. Yet there seems to equally be a release here. A freedom from the baggage and the burden. As the final fraught clouds of synthesizer sweep around, and as Peter Hook’s elegant, measured bass part climbs up to chime on the octave, we hear Curtis for the final time, dreamily and wistfully imparting “Where have they been?” as if finally seeing beyond the clouds and greeting the spectral inhabitants of a more welcoming plane of existence. It is dazzling in its creation, execution and capture and – twenty-two years after I first heard the album – I still cannot get to its climax without bursting into hot tears and needing ten minutes to compose myself before stepping out of the intense emotional pull of its gravity.
As with Unknown Pleasures, the sculptor of the record’s distinctive textures was the legendary Martin Hannett. Though often discussion of his work with Joy Division tends to focus on the (admittedly extraordinary) work on their debut, it is again his masterful and unorthodox approach to recording that allows the textures and layers of Closer to burst forth in such compelling form. His production may lack the sense of ghostly menace that permeates the DNA of Unknown Pleasures but the judicious and brave arrangements helps to meld the concoction of electronica and scabrous punk that gives the record a muscular atmosphere and sound that remains unsurpassed, as well as creating an atmosphere that fights for its very survival amidst the chaos. Though at the time, the band had issues with some aspects of the recording process his work on the likes of Isolation, Heart and Soul and Atrocity Exhibition genuinely redefine what could be achieved by integrating synthesizers and electronica into punk, post-punk and rock music, paving the way for the industrial experimentation of Nine Inch Nails, and Tool, as well as the ambient progressive leanings of latter-day Radiohead. More pointedly – it also set the template for the direction that the surviving members of the band would take following Ian Curtis’s death, as New Order proceeded to blaze a trail throughout the rest of the 80s redefining British electronic and dance culture. Tragically, for all his extraordinary work, Hannett himself was never the same after the events of May 1980. Devastated by Curtis’s death, he was unable to clearly commit his vast talents to several key production jobs and exacerbated by existing mental instabilities, drugs and alcohol, his career eventually spiralled out of control until his death in 1991. Until his final days, Hannett remained fiercely proud of his work on Closer and privately admitted he thought it was superior to his work on their debut. The fact that his vision for the record remains so singular forty years on is validation of his extraordinary abilities. If Joy Division created the vision, Hannett helped organise and build its dizzying majesty.
Closer remains a brutal, challenging listen. It is a record that scrapes its ragged edges and shattered emotions along your heart drawing dark, haunted blood. It is an album that has a streak of pain and torment running so deeply through it that you could bury yourself in it for decade without fully understanding the extent of its profundity. But it is also an album of magnetic brilliance. It looms musically, towering above itself with the sheer scale and brilliance of its own creation, with only the dense mass-dampener of Curtis’s honesty and openness keeping it standing. And for all its sadness and all its intense sorrow, it is an album of quite disarming beauty. The great Charles Shaar Murray once wrote of Joy Division that they resembled “Awful things carved out of black marble” and rarely has the sound of a band been captured more perfectly in words. Like the beautiful cold marble of the Appiani family tomb that adorns its cover – silent, melancholic, timeless – Closer sits as an imperishable obelisk to the legacy of a band that burned so incandescently brightly within their only two records that they remain without argument in the pantheon of the greats. And, in comparison to the simple humble flagstone as you walk along the footpath in Macclesfield Cemetery – easily overlooked were it not for the constant carpet of flowers and tributes that frames it season after season – it stands as a monument to a young man who saw beyond the edges of the world into a spectrum of emotional weight and frequency of the human condition that countless poets and artists could only dream of glimpsing. Closer is Ian Curtis’s immutable monument. And it is a monument that will stand – humble, haunted, unique, magnificent – for all of eternity.
Weary inside, now our hearts lost forever
Can’t replace the fear, or the thrill of the chase
Each ritual showed up the door for our wanderings
Open, then shut. Then slammed in our face.
Ian Curtis 18-5-80 Love Will Tear Us Apart
Closer is reissued on 40th Anniversary crystal vinyl from 17th July 2020, along with 12″ reissues of Transmission, Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere courtesy of Rhino Records.