Joy Division’s Closer Turns 35: the band’s gloomy 1980 swan song still packs an emotional wallop.
On July 18th, Closer, Joy Division’s sophomore (and final) studio album celebrates its 35th anniversary. It feels strange to think that an album so influential and contemporary has been around for so long. But then again I can’t believe I’m 44. Time flies.
It also remains one of the bleakest albums ever recorded, even more submerged and despondent than the band’s acclaimed début Unknown Pleasures.
The soundscapes were more austere, and the arrangements more restrained, while also expanding the use of electronics into the band’s sound (an element they would explore even further after morphing into New Order).
Album opener Atrocity Exhibition (inspired by the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name) threw down the gauntlet: icy synth textures glide over Peter Hook’s loping bass line, Stephen Merritt’s tribal drumming and Bernard Summer’s skittering guitar, creating a cavernous din augmented by Ian Curtis’s haunting baritone.
The funereal atmosphere of Closer felt appropriate given what occurred two months prior: Curtis, despondent over his marital failings and battle with epilepsy, hung himself, culminating in an album that acts as musical epitaph.
While the album cover, a photograph of an Italian tomb, appeared to be an homage to his death, it was actually shot before his passing. The album’s graphic designer Peter Saville was concerned by the correlation, which he recalled in a 2007 documentary: “we’ve got a tomb on the album!”
While Closer may have lacked the initial hooks and sonic attack of Unknown Pleasure tracks like She’s Lost Control-it held an allure all its own. It’s a prime example of an album which rewards repeat listens.
But even the band’s most upbeat number, the shimmering, dance-friendly Isolation features some of Curtis’s most downtrodden lyrics:
Mother I 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.
But it gets no darker than The Eternal, a proto-Goth epic which sounds like Curtis is giving his own circumspect eulogy:
Procession moves on, the shouting is over/Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone.
Talking aloud as they sit round their tables/Scattering flowers washed down by the rain.
Closer is equally fascinating for what now appears like a glaring omission: just a month before it hit stores, Factory records released Love Will Tear Us Apart...as a single. This would of course go on to be their most defining track, and the 1980’s as a whole.
It seems odd that the band and management didn’t include it on Closer, but it was a very single driven era: even their classic tracks Atmosphere and Transmission were singles, and only included on compilations afterwards.
But it’s a testament to Closer‘s power that it didn’t need a breakout song to become legendary: each track is an essential puzzle piece. It’s an album that despite its uniform tragedy still feels vibrantly defiant. Curtis may be gone, but he still feels present, his legacy coursing through every subsequent musician that makes beauty from pain.
It’s of little surprise that the group would get more upbeat when starting afresh as New Order. They couldn’t go any darker after Closer, and could only heal themselves and honor his passing by going on a different course.
By ending with Closer, Joy Division legacy remains ageless and undiminished. It’s still a harrowing listen, and certainly an album that one has to be in the mood for. But it’s comforting to know it’s always there when you need it.