A special 99-page magazine - The 60 Most Important Albums Of NME's Lifetime - is on sale now. You can order it here. In this excerpt, Barry Nicolson examines the appeal of Joy Division's 'Closer'.
Whenever they’re asked about Joy Division’s final album, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris are always quick to stress that none of them drew any parallels between what was going on in Ian Curtis’ personal life and the existential torment of the lyrics he was writing. Bullshit, you might cry, with all the certainty that hindsight now affords: how could anyone not make that connection?
Well, it’s a valid question. ‘Closer’ is an album that seems to seethe with distress and foreboding. It certainly sounds like the work of a man who would take his own life a few weeks after its recording was complete. But Curtis was a master at telling people what he thought they wanted to hear. ‘Closer’ is the sound of him hiding his turmoil in a place he knew his bandmates would never look: plain sight.
We’d go to rehearsals and sit around and talk about really banal things,” recalls Sumner. “We’d do that until we couldn’t talk about banal things any more, then we’d pick up our instruments and record into a little cassette player. We didn’t talk about the music or the lyrics very much. We never analysed it.
You can tell. Joy Division’s brief for every song they ever wrote was to make it a ‘fast, dancey’ one. Some turned out that way and some didn’t, but it was evident to all four members that the songs were getting better, and the band were growing in confidence. For three-quarters of Joy Division, ‘Closer’ was written and recorded during a period of cautious optimism, not pessimism. Why try to analyse it?
For that reason, nothing sounds over-thought. Although Martin Hannett’s production was more layered and complex than it had been on ‘Unknown Pleasures’, it still sounds creepily naturalistic. Even the rhythmic clang of ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ exudes just the right amount of unease, while Curtis’ (surely self-referential) lyric – “For entertainment they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’’’ – displays the honesty many a lesser artist would shy away from.
It’s Curtis who inevitably ended up being mythologised, but to focus on the frontman is to do a real disservice to his bandmates. ‘Closer’ is lusher, more adventurous and more atmospheric than its predecessor, and much of the credit for that must go to Sumner, Hook and Morris. There are some wonderful individual moments: from Sumner’s icy keyboard riff that underpins ‘Isolation’ to Morris’ bravura performance on ‘Colony’, this was clearly the work of a band as a whole at the peak of their powers.
They were already evolving away from the sparse, metallic economy of ‘Unknown Pleasures’, but the album’s final two tracks offer a glimpse at where Joy Division might have headed had Curtis not chosen his“permanent solution to a temporary problem”. The funereal, guitar-less ‘The Eternal’ is absolutely chilling, with Curtis singing about being “possessed by a fury that burns from inside” over a sepulchral piano and the industrial crack of a snare drum. ‘Decades’ is the album’s final and most ambitious song; a synth-driven ode to lost youth that has since taken on a ghostly sort of resonance. Its lingering fade-out of “Where have they been?” is perhaps rock’n’roll’s eeriest minute-and-a-half; you can hear Curtis slipping away from you, from the song, from everything.
After hearing ‘Closer’, Factory Records boss Tony Wilson knew he had a masterpiece on his hands. Sumner recalled being with Wilson on his way to a photo-shoot: “He told me, ‘You know Bernard, this time next year you’ll be lounging by a swimming pool in LA with a cocktail in your hand.’ I just thought it was the most utterly ridiculous thing anyone had ever said to me.” Wilson’s optimism was misplaced, but not unjustified.
Ian Curtis didn’t live to see ‘Closer’’s release, but even if he hadn’t immortalised himself in the most tragic way that an artist can, ‘Closer’ would still deserve every plaudit, every ‘Greatest Album Of...’ award that has come its way. It makes a mockery of the idea that Joy Division’s legend was built on tragedy. So, to return to the question: why didn’t Curtis’ bandmates notice that something was wrong? Perhaps it’s because musically, everything was going so very right.
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