Miscellaneous - Joy Division's 'Closer'
published: 20 / 4 / 2008
In the latest in our 'Soundtrack to Our Lives' series, in which writers describe the personal impact on their lives, Denzil Watson writes about Joy Division's second and last studio album, 'Closer'
It’s funny isn’t it ? When someone asks me “what are your favourite ten tracks of all time” I make a list, realise I’ve left off key tracks and then have to start all over again. Even now I’m not convinced I can come up with a definitive list. I guess it’s what comes of being a life-long music fanatic. Ask me the question ““what’s your favourite album of all time” and that’s an altogether different story. My favourite album hasn’t changed for nigh on twenty-seven years and to be perfectly honest, I doubt it ever will. The album in question ? Joy Division’s 'Closer', their triumphantly bleak but glacially beautiful second album from 1980. I remember the first time I listened to it a year after its release. My mate Dave Smith from school had a big brother a year above us who was in the know and Smithy very kindly taped it for me. It didn’t leave my Amstrad twin-tape deck tower system for weeks. I played the green C45 tape to death. I’ve still probably got it somewhere. As soon as I could afford it I trotted off and bought the fantastically packaged vinyl from my local record store. Since then I’ve added three different CD copies of the album to my collection. Okay, time to get serious. What makes 'Closer' so great you may ask yourself ? Well, where to start ? Let’s begin with Peter Saville’s timeless, classical cover art. Featuring the Appiani family tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy, the funereal feel of Saville’s cover perfectly complemented the sound of the album and (unintentionally) further mythologized Curtis’s death. Never has cover art been so at one with the music it was designed to house. Not bad for someone who never even heard the album before designing the sleeve. Then there’s the music itself. 'Closer' contains just nine tracks and was produced by Martin Hannett (the man responsible for producing the band’s debut long player 'Unknown Pleasures') at Britannia Row Studios in Islington, London. Opening track, “Atrocity Exhibition”, taking its name from a book by J.G. Ballard (a book read and loved by lead singer Ian Curtis), is a brutal introduction. Atypically it features Peter Hook’s crushing guitar riffs and Bernard Sumner on bass but it’s Stephen Morris’s rollercoaster drum motif that really makes the song as Curtis menacingly growls “This is the way, step inside” over the ensuing cacophony. Post-'Unknown Pleasures' the band had started to experiment more with sythesizers and this comes to fruition on 'Isolation'. Its mechanical meter and icy synth lines almost freeze your emotions until Curtis pleads “if you could just see the beauty” later on in the third verse of the song. 'Passover', the third track on side one, is a very interesting song in point in that in the hands of many lesser bands it would be written-off as a melancholic slow-paced dirge. Here though it perfectly illustrates what set(s) Joy Division apart from their post-punk peers, as Curtis bares his soul in his honest and heartfelt lyrics. By their very nature pop stars will always be troubled. But their problems tend to be of their own making. That could not be said of Curtis. The epilepsy he had to cope with in the last two years of his life was not of his doing and the helplessness of his condition comes through on this song more than any other on the LP. The metallic guitars of 'Colony' don’t really bring any comfort – just more bleakness and claustrophobia, albeit with a ray of hope. It’s the oldest track on show and could, quite easily, have appeared on 'Unknown Pleasures'. Side one raps up with the sparse but slightly more up-beat 'A Means To An End'. There’s an even more acute sense of desperation as Curtis relays the song’s mantra-like hook line “I put my trust in you” as the song gradually grinds to halt. Side two sees the return of the keyboards as the fantastic 'Heart and Soul' meanders out from the mists of Hannett’s production, all dreamy and mystic but at the same time compelling and urgent as Morris’s beat starts to cut through the music and drive the song along. It’s also here where you will find one of the LP’s best lyrics (“The past is now part of my future, the present is well out of hand”). 'Twenty Four Hours' is no less compelling. The frenetic, urgent guitars are exhilarating and depressing in equal measures but cannot hide the doom, the final nadir, the sense that time has finally run out. If 'Twenty Four Hours' was the car crash then 'The Eternal' is the funeral march. When I first heard this song it reduced me to tears. It still does. Again there’s a depressing cloud hovering over this six-minute epic as it solemnly meanders along. Although the piano line occasionally interjects to bring brief but scant relief, there’s something morbidly compelling about it all. If 'The Eternal' was the funeral march then other-worldly final tune 'Decades' is the LP’s heavenly final destination. It is one of the most extraordinary songs ever written. It soars and swoops thanks to its ethereal synths and Curtis’s beautifully poignant quizzing of “Where have they been?”. Forget 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' and 'Atmosphere'. This is the best thing that Joy Division ever recorded. Ironically, it didn’t even make the recent (and best avoided) 'Best of Joy Division' album released by London Records. Nothing can follow this finale…apart from going back to the beginning and listening to the LP all over again. As I have done time after time after time. How can I choose such a doomy-gloomy record as my choice 'Soundtrack of my Life' ? Am I a manic depressive ? Far from it. What 'Closer' taught me was the difference between articulating real emotion with humanity and those bands that sing so clumsily about “fake” feelings. It taught me the difference between dark and light and the difference between transitory pop music that goes out of fashion in months and music so seminal and contemporary that people will be listening to it decades later. How has it sound tracked my life? Well, shortly after hearing 'Closer' I went out and formed a band and played Joy Division covers. I’ve been in a band ever since. And at my funeral I want 'The Eternal' and 'Decades' played back-to-back. But enough of this. In life there has always been death and in death there has always been life. And Joy Division will always live on.
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