Joy Division – ‘Closer’: Round 46 – Rob’s choice

Joy Division - CloserI’m not sure how to write about ‘Closer’. I wasn’t sure how to speak about it when called upon to introduce it to the assembled DRC members. I fell back largely to shaking my head and squawking, “It’s perfect. It’s perfect.” Over and over.

That part at least i’m sure about. I bought ‘Closer’ in 1987, and I can’t think of a better record I’ve bought since. Years pass when I don’t listen to it, but it retains its power, its grace, its majesty, sealed up in marble as if preserved, embalmed.

I must have listened to it 20 times in the last two weeks, and it just grows and grows in stature. Age will not weather it.

Perhaps the one thing everyone knows about Joy Division’s second album is that it was a swan song. It was recorded in March 1980. Ian Curtis committed suicide on 18 May that year and the album, already complete and being readied for release, including the cover with its image of the tomb of the Appiani family in Genoa, came out exactly two months later on 18 July.

Every piece written since about the album is duty-bound to point out that it is impossible to disentangle the content of the record from the context of what happened to Curtis following its completion. Why would we want to?

‘Closer’ is populated by young men, outcasts, walking away from humanity and towards eternity, to a doomed and inevitable netherworld. It may not be quite “a cry for help, a hint of anaesthesia”. From his lyrics, Curtis sounds beyond that, beyond saving. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it seems incredible that no-one heard these songs and foresaw what would follow, all of which makes the testimony of those who survived him, who genuinely saw him as one of the lads and had no idea what was happening, all the more heartfelt and affecting.

But Curtis’s tragically early death did not make ‘Closer’ one tiny bit better. The only thing that happened once the recording had finished on 30 March 1980 that made ‘Closer’ any more remarkable was whatever producer Martin Hannett did to take the tracks laid down, under his legendarily strict supervision, by these four young men and turn them into crystallised flashes of icy lightening. Not only are these 9 songs perfect, in their austere, compulsive beauty, but they also sound perfect. The balance between and space around the nagging, abrasive guitars, Peter Hook’s most restrained and haunting bass work, and Curtis’s vocals, at once friable and authoritative, is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

And then there are the drums. Hannett was obsessed with drums, and in Stephen Morris he found a drummer with the instinctive virtuosity to allow him to realise his visions. He famously made Morris reassemble his kit and mike it up on the flat roof of the studio, before recording the playback via a single speaker on top of the studio toilet during the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ sessions. For ‘Closer’ he went even further, recording every drum sound separately, Morris playing the other parts of each track by striking his knees, so that each sound could be treated individually.  He may have been deranged, a megalomaniac, but by god, drums have never sounded better. If the openings of ‘Passover’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ could be captured alive in jars and exhibited like fireflies, they’d burn forever. So crisp, so light, so ephemeral, so perfect.

Nothing on ‘Closer’ is not perfect. It anticipates so much of the music which has followed it, none of which can approach it. It has none of the noise and bluster, none of the rock or the roll, but all of the stillness, pulsing life and timeless genius. It’s the essential distillation of what these five men, Curtis, Sumner, Hook, Morris and Hannett, had in them to give. It’s a monumental album in the true sense of the word.

Nick listened: It hadn’t struck me until the evening when Rob played this that its title can be read two ways: “nearer to” and “to close”. Given what happened afterwards, and the lyrics and mood of this record, I’m almost inclined to think that Ian Curtis had the latter interpretation in mind. But that can only ever be speculation. No one really knows.

I’ve owned Closer for many years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually listened to it all the way through. I was a year and three days old when he died, so to me he has always been dead, and this album has always been a totem of… darkness. Isolation. I think I’ve deliberately never investigated Joy Division’s music properly (or even New Order’s) lest it prove to be too much, to be haunted. Even at record club, amidst friends and curry, it’s a you listen, harrowing in sound and sense.

Rob butted in: Nick, Curtis was one of four, and the others still say “nearer to”. Perhaps the ambiguity was deliberate, but the pronunciation has only ever been one way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=969bX03pFg4

Tom Listened: As I have hinted in my write up of Spiderland, Closer is one of those albums that I acquired with a huge weight of expectation already on its shoulders…possibly too heavy even for Joy Division.

I had always been put off Joy Division because I never really got Love Will Tear Us Apart – it was just too gloomy for my 13 year old self to appreciate. In fact, it remains one of the few Joy Division songs I have never really clicked with (there are some on Unknown Pleasures too). But I chanced my hard earned cash on Closer anyway, mainly due to the overwhelming number of name checks in the music press at the time. And once I had got over my initial disappointment and actually listened to the album on its own terms, I began to see what all the fuss was about. For me Closer is a more accomplished piece of work than its predecessor, it works better as a whole and there are no weak links at all. And it feels so confident and timeless whereas Unknown Pleasures is much more identifiable as a post-punk album. So it’s odd that, despite all the boxes ticked and the awe with which I view the record, I hardly ever feel the urge to play it. Is that strange or unsurprising?

Graham listened: Being 14 year old on its release, this record passed me by at first. In fact it was probably a further 4 years until someone persuaded me I really should listen to this band. I wasn’t overwhelmed at first but as soon as I gave it time I was in. Devoured the back catalogue quickly and continued to buy the collections on cd. Simply awesome, but strangely something I wouldn’t think to play that often myself. I suppose that could be a degree of reverance that this album desrves.

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1 thought on “Joy Division – ‘Closer’: Round 46 – Rob’s choice”

  1. A simply amazing record – even more so because if you read Curtis’s lyrics they stand up as poetry. I’m not sure whether people actually understand the depth of meaning in his writing. As you may know the form of epilepsy from which he suffered has been linked, and supported by strong documentation, to ‘visionary’ insights. I know that the word ‘visionary’ is a bit emotive, but its probably the best fit. Keep listening!

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