In the past five years, Joy Division has been a particularly omnipresent reference point, a popular template for gloomy nü-gazers, and a conveniently hip name to drop. And it goes well beyond Interpol; even Fall Out Boy claims the band is one of their biggest influences, not that you’d know it from listening to them. Yet, if you listen carefully to Joy Division’s Closer now, 26 years after its release, you’d be hard pressed to hear its atmospheric gloom and concrete mausoleum production in many bands today. Paul Banks doesn’t have the spastic energy of Ian Curtis, nor is his voice nearly as creepy. And She Wants Revenge is merely Substance karaoke. There’s a level of sonic depth, of chilling mood and of portentous gloom on Closer that few, aside from Robert Smith in his heyday, can successfully match. Yet there’s a culture of Joy Division to which countless bands worship. Ian Curtis’ death went from tragic to romantic almost overnight, with many interpreting Closer as his musical suicide note.
The band has always denied their reputation as a lot of miserable bastards, however. They did, after all, begin as a punk band. Yet it’s hard to ignore the darkness and foreboding that pervades their second and final full-length offering. That everyone chooses to look into Curtis’ lyrics for clues about his own untimely death would seem only natural; summertime beach jams these ain’t.
Stephen Morris’ Can-like, high speed tribal drumming opens the first track, “Atrocity Exhibition,” a chaotic freakshow inspired by JG Ballard’s book of the same name. Ian Curtis’ lyrics tell of unspeakable horrors sold as entertainment, in lines like “for entertainment they watch his body twist/ behind his eyes he says `I still exist.’” And like a sadistic carnival barker, Curtis draws the listener in with the refrain “this is the way, step inside.” And while Morris and Peter Hook remain mostly consistent in their low-end rumble, Peter Hook’s guitars screech and howl, tear and scrape, like the subjects of abuse and torment in the song. From this song on, it’s evident: the decidedly more controlled sound of Unknown Pleasures was all but gone, leaving a chaotic, bleak and dangerous set of songs.
“Isolation,” by comparison, was sort of like a sonic predecessor to New Order, which Sumner, Hook and Morris would form after Curtis’ death. Marked by spastic synthesizers and a disco beat, it’s the most obviously catchy song on Closer, yet still highly paranoid and unsettling, particularly with Curtis’ confession, “I’m ashamed of the person I am.” Songs like “Passover,” a slower, more subdued and lyrically bleak track, are where Joy Division earned their reputation as progenitors of goth rock. However, having never employed the campy fashion, makeup or persona, this is largely a perception of the listener. It’s hard not to view this as one of the darker songs in all of rock, however.
The choppy “Colony” is closer to a straightforward rocker, though still miles from straightforward. It does, however, bring the tempo up before transitioning into “A Means to An End,” a simpler, and catchier song, as well as one of the band’s best. Hook’s descending bassline, Morris’ slo-mo disco hi-hat, Sumner’s unforgettable riff and Curtis’ haunted cry of “I put my trust in you” combined make for a surprisingly rocking listen, and one that many have attempted to copy since. Suffice to say, they all fail.
Arguably nothing is as amazing on the album as “Heart and Soul,” a bleak look at humanity, Curtis’ lyrics matched by the band’ s ambient arrangement. Bound by a repetitive bassline and skipping drum beat, the music frames Curtis’ voice, awash in reverb, sounding like it’s spoken from beyond. After the second chorus, however, Barney’s guitar spirals out of control into a distorted jangle of minor key terror. This song’s arrangement on paper doesn’t seem all that complex, nor is its structure all that different than most mainstream pop songs, yet in execution, it’s so much more advanced than most of Joy Division’s peers’ songs at the time, as well as that of most rock artists today.
It is during the final third of the album where the mood descends from bleak and brooding to hopeless, beginning with the line “So this is permanence/love’s shattered pride” in “Twenty Four Hours.” Slipping back and forth between subdued contemplation and visceral, pounding speeds, it’s the very model of bi-polar. “The Eternal” forgoes the manic for the merely depressive, slow burning piano and synth framing Curtis’ observations on death. The closer, “Decades,” is the closest song to sounding “goth,” aside from mere dark sensibilities. A harpsichord-like synth creates a baroque sort of atmosphere that sets a flame beneath the already morose sound created within the song. This song, in particular, seems to make a strong transition toward New Order’s first album, Movement, as both are quite similar in tone and in approach. In fact, some have accused Movement of sounding too much like Joy Division, though some forget that it was only a year prior that the trio, with Curtis, released Closer.
Joy Division’s best known song and biggest single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” was released shortly before Closer, and it’s no coincidence that it was left off the album. Though it, in itself, is equally as dark and as pessimistic as the songs on Closer, it sounded like a standalone hit, a single that seemed to have no direct connection to the album. Closer was not meant to be an album of singles, but rather nine songs connected in one of the strongest and most influential sets ever released. It’s nearly impossible to match these songs in terms of sheer originality and in passion, but it’s certainly easy to understand why so many bands attempt to do so.