It's difficult to talk about Joy Division’s second LP, Closer, a towering piece of post punk perfection. Ian Curtis, singer and lyricist for the band, took his own life in May 1980 (see our Peter Hook review at tinyurl.com/zubpermanent), and Closer was released in July 1980. This LP is a 40th Anniversary reissue, beautifully packaged and on a cool clear vinyl (see our Unknown Pleasures 40th anniversary reissue review at tinyurl.com/zubunknown).
Closer is many things, but it is definitely the sound of a band making a quantum leap in their sound and approach. Joy Division went from a part-time combo to a full time, fully formed band, opening for Buzzcocks on their UK Different Kind Of Tension tour and blowing them away almost every night. It’s also the sound of a confident studio band, led by amazing producer Martin Hannett, who had a vision of sound for this band the band themselves could not grasp. The reissue has been remastered and sounds even cleaner than the original.
Ian Curtis, suffering from epilepsy, his marriage failing and about to lose his young daughter, was caught up in a new partnership with a Belgian woman. Love, indeed, was tearing him apart. The overarching feeling of Closer, lyrically and musically, is one of guilt. Curtis’ lyrics moved on from Manchester stories (on Unknown Pleasures) to more personal stories. Listening to it now, you can tell he was not well.
Closer starts off with ‘Atrocity Exhibition,’ a title taken from a JG Ballard experimental novel, featuring tribal drums and wild, cat-strangling guitar. It wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Scary Monsters. Ian intones throughout: “This is the way, step inside.” ‘Isolation’ is full of Stephen Morris’ mechanical drums, lead bass (from Peter Hook) and icy synths. The music sounds like isolation. In a cool studio trick, Hannett brings the ending back in reverse.
‘Passover’ features a sparse drum pattern with otherworldly guitar set way in the back. The song develops a bit of a pulse and then back to the sparse drums. Bernard Summer’s guitar is challenging and covers a lot of ground in the back of the mix. The song slows down like a watch spring running out. For one riff repeated throughout, ‘Colony’ is remarkable, with strange, strangled guitar and an insistent bass. Ian declares in the middle: ‘God in his wisdom took you by the hand/God in his wisdom made you understand.” It’s quite a workout. The driving proto-disco of ‘A Means To An End’ has a ‘Ceremony’ like riff (see our podcast at tinyurl.com/zubceremony) and an odd descending chord progression. Singer Curtis sings in a bit more languid manner through this one. This is the second song that slows down at the end, using tape and/or time processing.
‘Heart And Soul’ has a peculiar synth bass, with spooky vocal and guitar treatment from Hannett, like the rest of the band is playing in another room. “Heart and Soul, one will burn” is the main lyric, with Curtis sounding resigned. ‘Twenty Four Hours’ is more typical of an Unknown Pleasures track, all bass heavy, more traditional rock, less experimental, attached to a sad lyric:
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, of what once was love.
Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I'd found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away.
‘The Eternal’ is full of Hannett production touches, with a funeral keyboard motif, synth voices, and drums totally full of reverb and delay. Curtis’ voice, however, is clear and full, and this is a requiem of a song. The LP ends with ‘Decades,’ featuring a church organ sound, as Curtis sings:
Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders,
Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in,
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying,
We saw ourselves now as we never had seen.
Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration,
The sorrows we suffered and never were free.
The slow unspiraling of this song is a fitting ending to Closer. As I have spoken about in other reviews, this is not Goth music. It's the sound of a band adopting Bowie, Iggy Pop (Idiot and Lust For Life era) and some krautrock. It’s a celebration of a band that quickly ascended to the height of their powers. Perhaps a band that, especially in Ian Curtis’ case, burned too brightly too fast. There is a feeling of regret running through Closer, but these are not rock and roll tropes. Closer is real life, real pain, real death. It’s also beautiful, masterful art.
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