On the 40th anniversary of Ian Curtis’s sudden, self-inflicted departure, we look back at his band’s greatest album
When Joy Division’s second and last album saw the light of day in July of 1980, it was hard not to take the album’s cover image as a statement on the state of the band.
After all, Ian Curtis committed suicide on this tragic day in May of ’80, leaving bandmates Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris steering down an unfamiliar course. The four had discussed how, if one of the members up and left the group, they would change their name and continue on. But idle speculations are nothing compared to the cold realities of death.
The cover art, a photo of a tombstone from Italy, was suggested long before Curtis’ life unraveled, in a series of difficult decisions regarding his flailing marriage, his adultery, and his worsening medical condition as a result of epilepsy and the treatments meant to help him. Deborah Curtis, his widow, writes in her memoir that Ian always meant to die young like his heroes, and that reality caught up with his desires; I don’t know if I agree, but that is her privilege. What I do know is that “Closer,” as the Last Will and Testament of Joy Division, is unparalleled in its innovation and impact.
The album came out after the release of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” an iconic and ironic song for the band to release as it became their most well-known and well-quoted work of art without sounding much like anything else they’d recorded. “Closer” begins with a statement of purpose in “Atrocity Exhibition.” If fans of the band take “Love” as a thinly veiled commentary on Curtis’ marriage, “Exhibition” is possibly his reaction to the very stardom he sought and the price he paid for it. His seizures were recreated on stage in his jerky dancing (called “the dead fly dance” by some), and many of the lines about how the figure in the song is put on display for the audience’s amusement recall Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” short story. “Isolation” follows, and over the years I’ve found that this is probably my favorite on the whole album. But you have to get through the atrocity exhibition to understand why this song is so important.
As I said at the top, the band members had discussed what would happen if one of them left the group (I doubt they imagined one of them dying, as young men in their early twenties clearly are invincible). “Isolation” points to the path they would take sans Curtis, when Sumner took on the lead vocals and Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert joined in to help them continue as New Order. “Isolation” is a dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on early New Order albums like “Movement” or “Low-life,” the only discordant note about it being that Ian is the lead singer on this, not “Barney” Sumner.
Of the stand-out tracks, I think every Joy Division fan has their own, but for me there is no question that the second side of the album stands apart from the rest. Beginning with the sweep of “Heart and Soul,” the album chugs along to the despair of “Twenty Four Hours.” The former provides the name of the inevitable box set that came out in 1997, collecting all of the band’s studio work, and is a masterpiece. The latter is almost unbearable to listen to, as the despair ratchets up. It’s fitting, then that the next song, “The Eternal,” is a peaceful break from the terror of the previous song, even if it’s no less reassuring. When I was younger, I always skipped over “The Eternal” to get to “Decades,” the album’s closer. But it’s a beautiful song now, and I actually almost feel like “Decades” suffers by comparison. Which is not to say that it isn’t a masterpiece, too.
The album’s title has always given me trouble in terms of how to pronounce it (is it “closer to you” or the “closer,” the last pitcher to come in and save a baseball game?); I’ve heard it both ways and I think my preference for pronunciation depends on my mood that day, month, or year. It is, ultimately, the last thing one of my favorite bands prepared for release while all were still on this earth; had Ian Curtis lived, Joy Division would’ve gone on an American tour and possibly blown up bigger than he could’ve imagined (perhaps a more dour, less anthem-friendly U2 in terms of their impact). It doesn’t matter, for what is done is done, and “Closer” stands apart from a lot of the albums put out by Joy Division’s contemporaries. It’s at once beautiful and tragic, mournful and forward-looking, depressing and life-affirming.
In other words, it’s art.