A Journal Of The Dark Arts
On the 40th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ death, we step inside Joy Division’s sepulchural sophomore album, Closer.
Closer is often cited as an early influence on goth. While its true that the iconic, funereal black and white album cover would certainly help to define the genre’s visual aesthetic; the lyrical matter is certainly shrouded in shadow and drowning in darkness; and there’s certainly evidence of the chorused, flanged guitars and bass favoured by the dream poppers and death rockers, Joy Division are far removed from goth’s florid romanticism. Sonically, aesthetically, they’re still much more in line with the post-punk genre they also helped to spawn and inspire – steely, gray, alienated, dystopian.
It is as review Kevin Orton notes in his review for Soundblab, “Anyone who feels that Joy Division were about gloom and doom are only listening with superficial ears. Despite their despairing reputation, this is a very misunderstood band and album. This music is about survival, not morbid resignation. True, the atmosphere is bleak, but at no time does Joy Division wallow in it. Far from it. If anything, it’s a lesson in economy. Less is truly more. Lyrically, the odds may seem futile but there is still a last-ditch effort to break on through to the other side.”
Sonically, aesthetically, they’re still much more in line with the post-punk genre they also helped to spawn and inspire – steely, gray, alienated, dystopian.
Closer is one of those records that can’t get out from under the shadow of its origin story. If you’re a regular reader of Forestpunk, you no doubt already know that Joy Division singer Ian Curtis would never live to see the success of the follow-up to Unknown Pleasures. Curtis would tragically take his life two months after finishing recording Closer, and two months before its release in July of 2018. Closer is one of those albums that doesn’t need the hype to be worthy of praise and attention. Beginning with Stephen Morris‘ toppling tribal drums on “The Atrocity Exhibition,” Joy Division set the bar and the gold standard for post-punk while simultaneously helping to establish the genre.
“The Atrocity Exhibition” could be seen as a template for the best post-punk. Obscure, avant-garde literary references? Check. In this instance, J. G. Ballard‘s prurient, dystopian nightmare of the same name. Polyrhythmic percussion? Squealing atonal guitars? You can hear prescient echoes of everything from The Cure‘s Pornography to The Ex’s atonal anarcho-punk in just six minutes.
“Isolation” switches and speeds thing up, illustrating how far removed they are from yr usual doom-and-gloom death rockers, sounding more like post-punk progenitors Magazine or The Stranglers or a New Wave disco outfit playing some bingo hall.
Joy Division have more in common with futuristic disco, New Wave, reggae, and dub than they do with the gauzy, ethereal darkwave they would help to inspire. Stephen Morris‘ drums sound more like King Tubby than King Diamond. Bernard Sumner‘s glassy digital synthesizers are meant to lacerate more than hypnotize, as has rarely been heard with post-punk OR goth, before or since. Peter Hook‘s basslines also bear the hypnotic, minimalist repetition more common to reggae or dub than your average punk-leaning music.
Lastly, we cannot overlook the tortured presence of Ian Curtis himself. His blank-eyed baritone is singular in the history of rock music – deadpan, dreary, yet oddly emotional. Ditto, his iconic stage presence, with his twitching, flailing dancing, a mockery of his own epileptic seizures. Ian Curtis was a man torn by conflicting impulses and inner tensions. He was notoriously engaged in two love affairs at the end of his life, one with his wife Deborah and the other with Annik Honore, a Belgian journalist Curtis met while on tour. Together with the increasing frequency and severity of his epileptic seizures, the pressure finally proved too much. Ian Curtis took his own life by hanging on May 18, 1980.
So how does Closer hold up, 40 years later? And how does one write about an album over so much ink has already been spilled?
Closer sounds just as timely, and as timeless, as it likely did when it was first crossing the counters at Rough Trade, which speaks to its almost frightening futurism. It remains a perplexing, hypnotic guidebook to an arthouse underworld, taking you by the hand and leading you to the dissociative sci-fi existentialism of J.G. Ballard, the motorik minimalism of kosmische, the damaged glam rock of The Stooges and Sex Pistols.
As is nearly always the case with truly legendary music, Joy Division was the sum of a lifetime of experiences. This is the sound of real creativity, of self-expression and artistry, rather than trying to fit some sort of marketing formula. Instead, they wrote the formula.
So, welcome to the world of Closer – a night-time world of doubts, hopes, fears, looming spectres and incessant light. This is the way, step inside…
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