Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Joy Division 2: Closer

Like most bands of the time, Joy Division kept writing and performing new material, releasing a few singles and EPs that would stand separate from their next album. And by the time that came out, their singer was dead, having attempted and succeeded at suicide the day before—that’s right, a whole day—before the band was to fly to New York for their first American shows. Instead of furthering their promising career, Ian Curtis was immediately cast in cement as a troubled icon, guru to sad kids, and influence on bands who could only know Joy Division through their handful of records.
Closer (we don’t know if it’s pronounced with a hard or soft ‘s’) became the band’s epitaph, its white sleeve contrasting with the black of Unknown Pleasures, its lettering evocative of gravestone etchings, its cover photo of a tomb. While recorded at Pink Floyd’s plush, modern studio, it still sounds like it was recorded in a hallway, with the vocals sent through a tin can, and at first listen is even more robotic than their debut. And like that album, the subtleties emerge and haunt.
“Atrocity Exhibition” turns things on its head by putting the guitarist on bass while the bass player creates abrasive noises on the guitar. Ian repeats “This is the way, step inside” as if directing lambs to a slaughter. “Isolation” may be the catchiest tune written on the subject, with a danceable beat and a synth part that launched innumerable New Wave combos. It’s very well constructed, repetitive but not redundant, and developing as it goes. A neat backwards effect leads into the simple drum beat of “Passover”, which mostly hangs back to spotlight Ian’s developed melody, letting the guitar wander only in between verses. The robotic feel continues on “Colony”, circular and jagged, and on “Means To An End”, with a basic descending riff that sounds like Peter Hook keeps changing his mind as to which notes to include.
Side two has the more satisfying set of songs, in terms of developed arrangements. “Heart And Soul” purrs along with an undercurrent of travel (think Pink Floyd’s “On The Run”, or Steve Miller’s “Swingtown”) with the simplest of guitar strums punctuating Ian’s rumination. The influence of “Twenty Four Hours” would be felt all the way into the ‘90s, with its use of dynamics and strummed bass, alternate driving and tense sections, and the surprise ending. Then, with a hiss of crickets, “The Eternal” wafts in, decorated by funereal piano. After the sad verse the crickets return, now sounding more like locusts, but recede again for another litany of lament. Finally, “Decades” presents the most developed integration of synth into their sound, a grand finale that predicts the likes of Yaz and Depeche Mode.
Revisionist opinion to the contrary, Closer is not a matching bookend to their debut, but the sound of a band having not quite arrived at their potential. And it’s too bad, because it’s clear they were on to something, but as with many legends of rock, there’s no way of knowing what else they might have done. Ian Curtis might have waited another couple of years before killing himself, he might have gotten over his demons and lived into a ripe old age, or the plane carrying the band to the USA could have crashed into the Atlantic. It’s moot, but their fans can be thankful for what they have.

Joy Division Closer (1980)—

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