What might have been, we’ll never really know. In the early hours of 18th May 1980 Joy Division singer Ian Curtis took his own life. They were to imminently embark on their first US tour, something they had all reportedly been excited about, and “Closer” was to be released in July.
Martin Hannett is again in the Producer’s chair but this time the sound is a lot more refined and uniform than the patchy “Unknown Pleasures”. Again Peter Hook was unhappy with the production “I was like, head in hands, oh fucking hell, it's happening again. Unknown Pleasures number two…I was so annoyed with him (Hannett) and went in and gave him a piece of my mind but he just turned around and told me to fuck off”. Considering Hooky’s disappointment at their first album sounding like Pink Floyd it’s ironic that “Closer” was recorded at the studio Floyd built, Britannia Row in London.
You can almost divide the songs on “Closer” into two parts, those written before the recording session started which are more guitar based ("Atrocity Exhibition", "Passover", "Colony", "A Means To An End" and "Twenty Four Hours”) all of which had been played live during the later part of 1979. Then there are those songs written in early 1980 as the album sessions approached, all of which feature greater use of synthesizers ("Isolation", "Heart and Soul", "The Eternal" and "Decades”).
“Atrocity Exhibition” is constructed around Stephen Morris’ rolling and repetitive drum pattern. It’s unnerving, presenting a feeling of horror and sadness. It was significantly influenced by J.J Ballard’s 1970 novel “The Atrocity Exhibition” about which Ballard has said “I was terribly wounded by my wife's death…To some extent The Atrocity Exhibition is an attempt to explain all the terrible violence that I saw around me in the early sixties”. Ian Curtis wrote these feelings into the lyrics and Bernard Sumners screeching guitar effects, buried way back in the mix, add to the feeling of something terrible approaching.
“You'll see the horrors of a faraway place, Meet the architects of law face to face
See mass murder on a scale you've never seen, And all the ones who try hard to succeed”
Like all Curtis’ lyrics, cryptic but beautifully poetic. The song is stark and metronomic with the repeated refrain (you can’t really call it a chorus) of “This is the way, step inside, This is the way, step inside” adding to the bleakness pictured in the verses.
“Isolation” falls into the category of songs that have done away with guitars in favour of Bernard Sumner playing synthesiser. It’s a relentless dancefloor pounder in the style of “She’s Lost Control” driven along by Morris’ synthetic drumming and Hooky’s Bass. Curtis’ words express disappointment in himself
“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 in the very next verse he intones
“But if you could just see the beauty, These things I could never describe
These pleasure's a wayward distraction, This is my one lucky prize”
It’s a perplexing song, I’ve seen it fill many a dancefloor yet the writer himself seems confused in the lyrics, ashamed yet seeing the beauty in some things.
The start of side 2 presents you with two of Joy Division’s greatest songs. “Heart And Soul” continues in “Isolations” vein. The drums are more natural now but just as driving, the Bass now feels like it may be synthesized. Curtis sounds like he’s singing from deep within a cave, his voice swathed in reverb, like he’s hiding from something. Sumner cuts through this (again I can only describe it as) claustrophobia with bright shimmering guitar chords
“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
Heart and soul, One will burn”
Next, “Twenty Four Hours” begins quite gently on a strummed Bass guitar and then suddenly explodes into a furious rush. Curtis opening verse hinting at the problems in his relationships that were affecting him so greatly
“So this is permanent, love's shattered pride
What once was innocence, turned on its side
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move
Deep in the memory, what once was love”
“Closer” is superb, no question. Let’s also note that some of Joy Division’s greatest songs don’t appear on either of their albums (“Transmission”, “Dead Souls”, “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) and yet both their albums still are regarded as classics. “Closer” is in no way an easy listen, it’s utterly intense and demands you pay close attention from the very start. Curtis lyrics hint at some of the reasons he decided to exit this life and are every bit as poetic and personal as those of Linton Kwesi Johnson, just in a different genre. Peter Hook has said they never really asked Ian what his lyrics meant or were about but on reading them after his death he found the explanations to Ian’s difficulties were all there. “Closer” is a beautiful yet heartbreaking monument to Joy Division’s lasting power and influence…what might have been ?
Twenty Four Hours - https://youtu.be/F9ourSxX8ao?si=UwYVPG75SupnXEGZ