Album review: Closer – Joy Division (1980)

Album: Closer – Joy Division (1980)

While the album might be too dark and morbid for some listeners, there is no denying troubled singer Ian Curtis was at the peak of his powers in terms of songwriting, and his honesty and raw emotion is what makes the music so powerful. Martin Hannett was still producing, but seems to have taken as many chances as the band itself throughout — differing mixes, differing atmospheres, new twists and turns define the entirety of Closer, songs suddenly returned in chopped-up, crumpled form, ending on hiss and random notes.

Pitchfork Media listed Closer as 10th best album of the 1980s, and it is 72nd on NME’s “100 Greatest British Albums Ever”. In 2003 the album was ranked at number 157 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It claimed the number one slot on NME Album of the Year, and was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

The sleeve by Peter Saville is inspired by a magazine he read. The photograph on the cover is of the Appiani family tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy, by Demetrio Paernio. Both the cover art and the bleakness of the music and lyrics amplified the already strong mystique surrounding the album after Curtis’ suicide.

Band member Peter Hook: “We chose the covers for Closer and Love Will Tear Us Apart well before Ian died without any thought that when they appeared they would seem so inappropriate, and yet horribly appropriate, one was like a tombstone, one was like a funeral”

Band member Bernard Sumner: “The sleeve seemed like a horrible cash-in. That’s what it seemed. That was obviously not the case. The sleeve was designed well before Ian died. It was like the title, we didn’t think of the connotations until after it happened.”

On Closer, there is a sense of a lyricist (Ian Curtis) blotting out a private reality that has become too much to bear. The title is interesting, closer to death, or the closer of a life? In hindsight, Closer was a series of blatant and liberating suicide notes to a number of people in Ian’s immediate vicinity, who at the time simply looked upon the songs as immensely powerful. Closer is about the end of a life, about feeling out of place in the universe.

The cult status lead singer Ian Curtis has obtained over the years is reminiscent of the lives of Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison. We are drawn to these enigmatic and charismatic icons, we never saw the decline of a career, and each remain young and mysterious, with no definite answers.

Band member Stephen Morris: “On Unknown Pleasures (1979), I think that what Ian was doing was assuming characters, and he was writing from someone else’s point of view. From what I could gather, he was writing from another perspective. I felt at the time that he was doing the same with Closer (1980), it’s only with hindsight you realise that that’s not necessarily the case. It wasn’t a character he was writing about anymore. It was all about him and his life. Perhaps he (Ian Curtis) was trying to say something to us, although God knows what we could have done about it. He was clearly bothered about things. Now you think, well, why didn’t you say anything at the time? (…) He wouldn’t talk to us about any problems he was having. Well, you don’t, do you? Or you didn’t. We didn’t. Not then”

Ian Curtis’ wife, Deborah Curtis: “in the main he was reading Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse, J. G. Ballard. Photomontages of the Nazi Period was a book of anti-Nazi posters by John Heartfield, which graphically documented the spread of Hitlers ideals. It struck me that all of Ian’s spare time was spent reading and thinking about human suffering”

Stand-out tracks:

Isolation – Joy Division

(Has been described as danceable, poppy, synth heavy. About loneliness.)

Heart And Soul – Joy Division

(Was one of the few Joy Division studio recordings to feature lead singer Ian Curtis playing the guitar. On this song Curtis used a greater vocal range than usual, starts every verse in a soft, high voice and goes lower to his usual cold bass-baritone singing-style. The song’s second verse opens Anton Corbijn’s 2007 Joy Division biopic Control.)

Decades – Joy Division

(Songmeanings has a few interesting interpretations, how the track could be about the affects a war will have on the young men who are forced to fight it(Curtis was reading about WW2 so it seems to fit). He pens the words vividly as if he had been a soldier himself. Curtis obviously was in the centre of a relationship tug-of-war that took its toll. Or might even be perceived about someone who’s died looking back, being able to look back at their life.)

The non-studio album tracks:

Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division

Tender, sorrowful, heartfelt, poetic, and perhaps among the most haunting songs of the 80s. Many have taken it to be lead singer Ian Curtis’ most personal song drawing parallels between the lyrics, and the turmoil he was feeling at the time due to an extramarital affair. Curtis was torn between being a rock star with a Belgian girlfriend he met on the road, and on the other hand family life with his wife and daughter at home.
People can very easily side with the mother, because she had a young child. Curtis didn’t handle it very well at all, and couldn’t speak about it very clearly, and could have been a big reason why his life ended, feeling guilty and confused about what he really wanted.
As the lyric reads, Curtis was being torn apart by love, work, stress, songs, and the first signs of fame, which would come after he had died.
It has been suggested Love will tear us apart was sung as though Curtis knew when he was going to die. Perhaps a song about the death of love, delivered as if it was a near-cheerful pop tune.

Peter Hook: “It was always important to us that we were radical, that we were rebellious. All the other bands sold out, they put their singles on their albums. Love Will Tear Us Apart didn’t fit so it didn’t go on”

Music writer Paul Morley on the song Love Will Tear Us Apart: “the extravagant introspection of a song where everything had been remembered in the just cold light of day, the way the confused past was interpreted using the intelligence of the future, the way an exalted lack of understanding was channelled through a system of opening and closings, that this lack of understanding alone set into motion and kept in motion, about the whole relation between absence and presence, between too many things and never enough things”

Atmosphere – Joy Division

Possibly my favorite Joy Division song. The jingle sound production is beautiful, and the lyrics give me chills.
Atmosphere was originally released in 1980 as a France-only single under the title Licht und Blindheit. The video released with the song’s re-release in 1988 contained characters wearing black-hooded cloaks and white burial shrouds. It was directed by Anton Corbijn, who later directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control (2007). It could be because of this, that some editions of the film contain the video as an extra. Perhaps the posthumous 1988 video adds to the enigma of the song, who knows. Curtis had trouble communicating his problems to band members, so perhaps lyric “don’t walk away in silence” is a pep-talk to himself to open up, and for his friends and family to stick by him.

Music writer Paul Morley on Atmosphere: “This song helped me define myself, to find the most comfortable place between ‘here’ and ‘nowhere’, to almost come to terms with the suicide of my father, to learn how to cheer up in the eyes of the world. Seriously though, it’s nice, isn’t it? (…) He sang the lyrics as if he felt that, despite the pain, he was going to live forever.”

(My favorites of the lesser-known tracks)

Dead Souls – Joy Division

Digital – Joy Division

These Days – Joy Division

Rest in peace Ian Curtis

Bonus:
Peter Morley’s favourite cover versions of Joy Division songs: Susanne and the magical orchestra’s Love Will Tear Us apart, Low’s Transmission, Grace Jones’ She’s Lost Control, New Order’s first single Ceremony, which was a Joy Division song.

Readers, was my review useful? Any thoughts on the music? What is your favorite Joy Division song?

Did you miss last week’s album review of Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division (1979) ? Here’s a link.

Quotes from:
Joy Division Piece by Piece, writing about Joy Division 1977-2007, by Paul Morley

Joy Division (2007) (documentary)

Joy Division: Under Review (2006) (Documentary)

Allmusic review

Album review: Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division (1979)

Joy Division were an English post-punk rock band formed in 1976 in Salford, Greater Manchester. I have to confess I mainly like the singles these guys put out. What make Joy Division songs hold up today are the emotions, which will still be relevant in 100 years. The band consisted of lead singer Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Stephen Morris (drums and percussion). Hook, Morris and Sumner all played as if they were the lead instrument. The bands anger was not that of banal punks lobbing scowls at the everyday targets of frustration, but more mysterious, less domestic, rage aimed at time, history and the gods, aimed at the self, and fate. A unique, haunting vocal, that was somehow mature beyond Ian Curtis’ years. Credit is also due to Martin Hannett’s production work on the record, bringing it all together. According to article in Rolling Stone, Joy Division created arguably “the most influential sound of their scene and era.”

The group was originally called Warsaw, named after a David Bowie track from Low (1977) called Warszawa. Their first gig was in May 1977, supporting the Manchester Buzzcocks. They changed their name because of a London punk group called Warsaw Pakt, and instead became Joy Division, a name they found in an obscure book about the German concentration camps, The House of Dolls, written by an inmate, Ka-Tzetnik. The ‘joy division’ was a term used to describe units where female inmates were forced to prostitute themselves for Nazi guards. Singer Ian Curtis was interested in history, though there is no evidence to suggest he was sympathetic to Nazi’s, and this is regarded as a misreading of the band to see them in that light. The band name seemed to flow into and out of history, and pointed at an inquisitive group of individuals, always hovering out of reach.

The poetic lyrics may have been inspired by William Burroughs (authour of Naked Lunch), who’s world view is similar to Ian Curtis’ words. That of post-industrial nightmare, bigotry, lack of ethics, cynical, hate-filled, totalitarian underside, greed of western society gone mad, the nature of perception.

Album: Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division (1979)

The album cover sleeve depicts the radiograph of a dying star, and has become an iconic sleeve. According to the Joy Division documentary (2007), the designer had not heard the music when he made the cover.

Unknown Pleasures (1979) was critically acclaimed from the start. The New Musical Express staff put Unknown Pleasures at number 3 of their list of the best albums of 1979. In 2000 Q magazine placed Unknown Pleasures at number nineteen in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. Pitchfork Media listed Unknown Pleasures as 9th best album of the 1970s.

Stand-out tracks:

She’s Lost Control

She’s Lost Control (live)

She’s Lost Control, perhaps the closest Ian Curtis got to portraying the effects of his debilitating epileptic condition, he was famous for his unique “epileptic” dancing. Curtis was quoted in a radio interview: “Instead of just singing about something, you can show it as well”
People thought it was Ian Curtis hinting as his own epilepsy, but he always claimed, because he used to work in an epileptic unit, that the song was about a girl with epilepsy. When he finally got epilepsy himself, it’s what created the fear and panic for him, because he had seen really extreme bad cases of epilepsy, and he thought that was his fate.
Strobe lights could trigger a fit. He would always have the sense of being on the edge of control.
The music seemed to lift Curtis up and fling him about, as if he was possessed by its power. (see live performance in above video)

Candidate – Joy Division

Insight – Joy Division

(He sings “I’m not afraid anymore”, but you don’t believe him. Allmusic describes the song as a: “nervous drive toward some sort of apocalypse”)

I Remember Nothing – Joy Division

New Dawn Fades – Joy Division

Band member Peter Hook on lead singer Ian Curtis:

Peter Hook: “When Ian was with us, he would go along with that, become a bit of a lad himself – perhaps out of politeness – I don’t know. But he didn’t like to be like that in front of (his girlfriend) Annik. He was the sensitive artist in front of Annik, and we were the buffoons. Maybe he just went back to how he was with (wife) Debbie, quiet and unassuming. With us, he joined in the larking about. I don’t know. Maybe that’s what he was really like – and he just pretended with us that he was the bloke into wild bloke things. Or maybe he was pretending to Annik, to Debbie. That was the thing with Ian, he could be all things to all people. Keeping it all up, wearing the right mask in front of the right person, he could do it, but it was a problem for him. It added to the pressure. And then Annik started to say to Ian that she didn’t like the keyboards, that it sounded like Genesis, and that made him panic”

“The sad thing is, when he was well, he was the type of bloke that really didn’t want to cause any trouble. And when he was ill, he wanted to hide it from you. He didn’t want anyone to know how much trouble he was in, physically and mentally. He didn’t want things to go wrong because of him, You’d ask him, are you okay? Definitely, he’d say. In hindsight, it’s obvious he was a people pleaser. He was more and more in a mess, emotionally, domestically, physically, but he seemed okay more or less to the end, in terms of how he acted in front of everyone. But really there was no one to give him the kind of care he needed”

“To be truthful, I would just think Ian’s lyrics were fantastic, not that they were really about anything to do with him, or his life. In the end I was so wrapped up in myself that I didn’t notice he was desperately trying to say something to us that he didn’t really say in everyday life. I just thought, well, that’s his job, and he’s delivering, and they’re great, and they’re about something, but not something real, and on we go”

“We had great strength as a group, but as individuals we were all in our ways prone to stress. Being in such a situation sort of exaggerated what you were deep down, and I escaped the chaos in my way, which was to be loud and laddy”

“It’s amazing. It amazes me – the aura that surrounds the group. I just do not know where it came from, thinking of how we were so young and naïve at the time, even though we didn’t want anyone to know. Maybe we were putting on this front, and that was something that made it into the music – we were trying so hard not to be found out, that we couldn’t really play, or write, or make records, or look good, and somehow we convinced everyone, even if not ourselves.”

“I sometimes think if Ian had lived, the band would not have lasted as long as it ultimately did, as New Order. There’s no way he could keep up with the pace. That was the bloody problem – we were going too fast for him, and he couldn’t keep up.”

Band member Bernard Sumner:

“I don’t think if Ian had survived, the group could have lasted much longer, not considering the state he was in. It would all have ended a long time ago. In a way his death extended the life of the group. His head couldn’t take it. (…) but Ian would have been the first to have stopped playing so many gigs if he could have done without feeling he was letting us down. In a way he wanted a quieter life. He talked about owning a bookshop. If he had lived, in some ways I imagine him writing novels, not living the rock star life”

“If we really thought about it, at the beginning of the year, because Ian was so ill, the band’s future looked really bleak but we didn’t want to acknowledge it because we were at a creative height and everything was starting to happen for us”

Musician Genesis P. Orridge talks about Ian Curtis in the 2007 documentary, “Every week he was becoming more and more shut off from what people perceived him to be. Ian Curtis was two people, the media figure singer, and the actual Ian Curtis, who was hurt, angry, lost, very lonely. And didn’t think people would treat him with respect if he (Ian Curtis) explained who he really was.”

Readers, was my review useful? Any thoughts on the music? Next week, a look at Joy Division’s album, Closer (1980), and the classic non-album singles Love Will Tear Us Apart, and Atmosphere.

Quotes from:
Joy Division Piece by Piece, writing about Joy Division 1977-2007, by Paul Morley

Joy Division (2007) (documentary)

Joy Division: Under Review (2006) (Documentary)

Rolling Stone

Allmusic