25 Masterworks: Joy Division – Closer
My Spin on Masterworks: 18 of 25
Joy Division’s second – and final – album begins with a drum pattern from Stephen Morris that was inspired equally by tribal music and the taut psychedelia of Can. Each tom hit lands with additional resonance under Martin Hannett’s supervision, echoing into empty space that is then partly occupied by a stealthy, prowling bassline. Simultaneously, we are given a peek behind the curtains of background silence into a grotto of dissonant noise: a series of disorienting and jagged sounds that mirror chittering gunfire, scrambled radio transmissions, and orthodontic instruments. Up splutters a guitar that screams and grinds like a chainsaw; more liable to hotwire the nerves rather than it is to carry an earworm. Amid this brooding thundercloud of noise, Ian Curtis’ deep voice commands all, repeatedly instructing the listener that “this is the way, step inside”.
The song is ‘Atrocity Exhibition’; six minutes that lay the splintered groundwork for what is to come. The experience of some albums can be likened to embarking on a journey, but to listen to Closer is more like entering a cavern. Its atmosphere (described through the years in adjectives such as sepulchral, crepuscular, and funereal) is disturbingly uneasy; the sharp contours that characterised Unknown Pleasures are here left frayed and raw, retaining the utilitarian economy of that album’s cuts while becoming more sonically harsh. Its songs occasionally teeter on the brink of anxious cacophony, as with ‘Colony’ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours’, which shatter the cold static of Joy Division’s previous works and hint towards a much rawer type of distress. It is a demanding album to listen to; emotionally exhausting and deeply, deeply troubling. I can’t claim to have heard every album ever made, but of the fair amount that I have given time to, Closer is very possibly the darkest. And yet, in spite of the sheer weight of its bleakness, once one is ushered into ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, time and time again Closer proves itself to be nothing less than an utterly gripping and extraordinary work of art.
As will always be the case for posthumous releases, for better or worse, Closer will forever be inextricably associated with Curtis’ suicide, and indeed, the album is riddled with allusions to depression, medication, existential angst, physical and mental debilitation, and hints towards an oncoming ultimatum as Curtis wrestles with a choice between two forms of damnation (“heart and soul / One will burn”). The lyric sheet is very clearly drawn from a tortured place. And yet, baffling – and even callous – as it may seem in hindsight, Joy Division’s three other members recorded Closer apparently unaware of the sheer depths of darkness that their music – and Curtis’ lyrics – were plumbing. Indeed, dispatches from the studios reflect a state of business as usual, the atmosphere allegedly shifting between that of boredom and the joy of improvised jams. All accounts and photos reflect a seeming normality; Bernard Sumner has repeated ever since that the group never drew parallels between their creative work and Curtis’ own state of mind, and the few snaps of the band at the time evoke a looseness that matches Peter Hook’s signature smirk.
And somehow, due to some collision of extracurricular elements and the musicians’ pure talent, Joy Division achieved something incredible. There is a pent-up aggression and drive to these tracks that goes one further than the refined productions of Unknown Pleasures. There is a greater dynamism to the songs, which feature confident use of fresh effects and textures. Sumner’s icy, skittish synths weave new unease through ‘Isolation’ and the tomblike ‘Decades’, while the whole group rally their energies for the choppy snarl of ‘Colony’. Elsewhere, Hannett’s fascination with digital delay trickery gives the inexorable dread of ‘Heart and Soul’ a strangely glossy sheen, which provides a ghoulish counterpoint to Curtis’ croon: “Existence, well what does it matter? / I exist on the best terms I can / The past is now part of my future / The present is well out of hand”. For all their other properties, these are wonderfully sculpted gems of post-punk, crafted with poise, confidence, and a keenness to evolve.
Of course, what truly elevates Closer to its near-mythic status is the presence (and in a way, the absence) of Curtis himself. Vocally, he sounds as strong and commanding as he ever did in Joy Division’s short career, his voice conveying that thousand-yard stare and straining urgency that has since spawned so many pale imitations. Lyrically, his work is magnificent, but almost unbearable to annotate. It is folly to make bold claims about lyrics, especially when circumstantial facts have been blurred by myths, endless speculation, and contrasting accounts. History has been distorted, both by lack of focused knowledge during the making of Closer and the pains of hindsight. And yet, when combined, all songs on Closer make an overwhelming suggestion that Curtis’ thoughts were drawn inwards: these are songs that are near-impossible to remove from their context.
Consequently, there is an overwhelming temptation to restrict Closer to a single – and ostensibly clear – meaning: it gives unflinching insight into Curtis’ psyche during the last months of his life. It is not for one person to determine how close this is to the mark, but such notions are inextricably folded into Closer’s tissue. Curtis’ self-examinations are shuffled in among terrible glimpses of war, societal oppression, treatment of insanity, and the isolation of the individual, and the lines between topics are frequently thin. ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ mixes its J.G. Ballard influence with a look into lunatic asylums opened as spectacles for the public: “for entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’”. In these words, Curtis somehow occupies the position of both ringmaster and victim, the lyrics and tense delivery echoing his twitchy, nervous dancing.
Curtis’ closing remark on the same track is “take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be”. It’s both a chilling portent for Closer as a whole, and a direct link to the very first words uttered on Unknown Pleasures: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand”. Perhaps somewhere between the two, the burden of appalling knowledge fell on Curtis’ shoulders, as his epilepsy steadily worsened, the music industry’s exploits took their toll, and the pressures of marriage and fatherhood amid the tumult became too much to bear. ‘Passover’ is particularly painful in its reflection of these ideas, as Curtis reflects a “crisis [he] knew had to come” while struggling with a dilemma of damning his family by leaving, or personally torturing himself by remaining. The mood only thickens as the album continues towards its chilling climax. The bipolar tempos of ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ conjure a terrible dread that is then realised in the desolation of ‘The Eternal’. Adrift on waves of piano under unforgiving, iron-grey skies, it’s almost suffocating in its haunting beauty. Finally, ‘Decades’ is almost beyond description, Curtis surveying traumatised “young men with weight on their shoulders” who are marched into “Hell’s darker chambers”. All elements cohere into an indelible whole: the thin, brittle clatter of percussion, the ghostly synth that dominates the mix following the second verse, Curtis’ final, repeated question as he slips away from the song.
It is concerning to see Ian Curtis frequently held up as a paragon, and the countless stories and myths that surround his tragic life have occasionally seen him hallowed as a Tortured Artist. This is potentially a dangerous title to impose upon him. He was mortal, he was human, he was flawed. He had to endure terrible circumstances beyond his control, but his conscience was not clear of his own mistakes and issues. What Closer transmits is the painful extent to which he grappled with his demons, and was tragically was defeated by them. To listen to Closer is to be unnerved, haunted, and awed, both by Curtis’ chilling intonations, and the economical power of the group’s music. Joy Division had set a bold new template for guitar bands, and post-punk was to blossom in their wake, reshaping British rock – and ultimately “indie” – for decades to come. We have Unknown Pleasures plastered on countless T-shirts and Greatest Albums of All-Time lists, but Closer is a truly peerless record. Powerful, intense, and unflinching, it provides a glimpse into the darkest recesses of a mortal mind in nine tracks of enduring power. Long before “emo” and “goth” music were to become stereotypes, Closer fused terrible beauty with an inexorable dread, and what a truly staggering album it is.
This is the way, step inside.
Posted on October 22, 2016, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 25 Masterworks, Atrocity Exhibition, Bernard Sumner, Decades, Factory Records, Heart and Soul, Ian Curtis, Isolation, Joy Division, Martin Hannett, Unknown Pleasures. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.