20 September 2010

Closer to "Closer"

I wrote this during summer 2007 for the alma mater's literary journal, but it was never published.

After I had purchased a copy of Joy Division’s Closer, I’d had it pegged as the most depressing record that I’d ever heard. It wasn’t just that the album represented the end of Ian Curtis. Beyond that context, the record still felt horribly distant and ghostly. Still, this was his last word as a proper Joy Division record. The white album sleeve hardly felt like the liberating light of heaven. It felt like oblivion. I had only been a Joy Division fan because they were exciting. I wasn’t into Joy Division for the suffering; I was there for the beauty. Different feelings came into play after listening to the album. Obviously, “Atrocity Exhibition” was no match for “Disorder”. The song was downbeat and strange; it was hardly the dark rush and exciting blast of energy that had begun Unknown Pleasures. I was disappointed. Ending a record with a song like “Decades” would make anyone think that they’ve heard the most depressing rock music ever. Feeling lost and confused, I had thought that there would be a song like “Atmosphere” to close the album. At the least, I’d expected Closer to be catchy yet haunting like “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. It didn’t hook me as the first album had done. I left the room minutes into “Atrocity Exhibition”. Returning later, I heard more of the same distance and defeat and soon left again. “Heart and Soul” came on and I was finished listening. I had to get away from that album. Letting the room clear, I didn’t return until “Decades” was playing. I sat down and stayed. When the song had finished, I was quite intrigued. I wanted to know why the whole album couldn’t be as good as that one song. I didn’t want to return to the album just yet, though. It was still too much to take again and still far too depressing for me so it sat alone, unheard for a few months.

Later one evening last month I decided that I needed some quiet music. I hadn’t heard Closer since that first attempt so I decided to listen to it again. Trying to keep the almost certain mood of depression to follow at arm’s length, I turned the volume down. Better safe than sorry. It’s not that the shadows of the instruments were the depressing parts of the album. It was just that voice which I feared. It called to me like the worst ghost from “Dead Souls”. However, I was able to ignore that sound and concentrate on the rhythms of the music. The sounds and patterns of Joy Division always hypnotized me and excited my mind. This was the key to appreciating the album. It turned out that the album wasn’t depressing at all. Instead, it was just moodier and more melancholy. Surprisingly, when I listened to it again more loudly, Curtis’ voice sounded fuller and more engaged. He sounded like a man trying to hold on rather than giving up and leaving. The voice was only scary because it sounded as if it’d transcended emotion. As Paul Morley has observed, it sounded as if Curtis was already dead. Uninflected and distant, it felt like a terrible haunting. Was it haunting anything? Was it just my imagination? It turned out that something was haunting Curtis. I soon realized something new. The record was an obsessive examination of psychic withdrawal and pained resignation.

Unlike Unknown Pleasures, there are no tortured cries on Closer. Actually, Unknown Pleasures is incredibly enjoyable until you get to the final song, “I Remember Nothing”. The preceding song “Interzone” is quite without warning raucous and enjoyable like an Iggy Pop song, but then unexpectedly “I Remember Nothing” comes along and cuts off those feelings. “I Remember Nothing” is depressing, uncomfortable, and nakedly autobiographical. That song paves the way for Closer. It reveals the personal struggles troubling Curtis at the time and also the later ones to be revealed in “Colony” and “Passover”.

When I listened to it again, and more closely, I found that Closer was not as distant and ghostly as I’d thought. If anything, the mix grounded it more realistically while the guitar playing was more muscular and efficient than I’d previously heard. (‘Colony’ and ‘Twenty Four Hours’ were particularly strong.) It felt very much like I was hearing the album again for the very first time – which in some manner I actually was. There were songs like “A Means To An End” and “Twenty Four Hours” that were magnificently enjoyable. Subsequent hearings made the album less depressing and intimidating. Instead, it became enjoyable and more approachable. I realized that the music lifted the lyrics from what otherwise could have sunk them into a psychic mire. Rather than gothic melodrama, the songs I heard were pure rock. Instead of drowning like a Cure song might, these songs soared. “Twenty Four Hours” was quite morbid and haunted, but the music hardly felt as such. The engaged bass and fierce drums dominate Curtis’ tortured musings. Instead, the songs rallied and fought. Uniformly great music and impassioned delivery made the album a triumph rather than an existential ordeal.

The irony of the band’s energetic, muscular music and Curtis’ defeated lyrics was what provided the tension that makes Closer a magnificent achievement. The album goes further and makes Curtis’ existential defeat rock out – much as “Disorder” and “She’s Lost Control” did but with an even more refined pain. The lyrics never feel bloatedly portentous or self-importantly gloomy. The passion that Ian Curtis was known for was actually a channel that gave his words so much life. This passion was borne of his rock ‘n roll idealism and showmanship, but its successful execution was all talent. The fact that these lyrics were simultaneously so confessional yet adaptable to the rock idiom made the achievement even more thrilling yet bittersweet. Closer is a double-edged sword precisely because it is so haunting and stark but also so enjoyable and beautiful. It conjures the same sensations one feels as one hears “Transmission”: hypnotic beauty, unavoidable excitement, and vague unease.

There is a lot to admire in Closer. The music is a primary one because it creates these different moods that stand apart yet cohere with the album as a whole. The sound design of Closer stands out, though. Through Hannett’s accomplished imagination and the band’s contributions, the mix has a clarity and smoothness that fully reveals the music to its best advantage. The sound design is a work of sonic sculpture. It is pure and solid like Houdon, but also vibrant and sweeping like Bernini. Drums are layered sensitively with the guitars and vox. Curtis is foregrounded, but the remaining instruments that surround are in perfect focus. Like ballet or flight, it has a satisfying symmetry and grace.

Additionally, the sequencing is impeccable. From “Atrocity Exhibition” to “Decades”, there is a clear progression akin to dramatic structure. The evolution of the psychological disarray in the songs very uncomfortably makes Curtis’ problems and dilemmas quite clear. “Passover” more than sufficiently spells out his dilemma. However, these songs are arranged so well that this is easily overlooked. The shock of the music makes an appropriate mask over the reality of the lyrics. The album goes from jarring weirdness to restrained beauty then to despair and resignation. The two most overtly rock numbers - “A Means To An End” and “Twenty Four Hours” - are each preceded by songs that are less so. This makes for an even listening experience, but the balance is pronounced: Curtis simultaneously fights and doubts. This balance could be an artistic conceit, but at least it’s a well-conceived one. The songs are each put in their right position to further the progression of the album. Each song is a different focus to Curtis’ despair. However beautiful that focus, it is also painful and troubling.

Closer is a debilitating psychic malaise. It would be the kitsch of suffering romanticism normally mocked in suburban goth that makes Joy Division stand out from most goth bands. (Just compare Bauhaus’ ‘The Passion of Lovers’ with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ or ‘She’s Lost Control’ or even ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ with The Cure’s ‘Pictures of You’.) Instead, Joy Division became art because it took the existential concerns common to the twentieth century and made them more viable and exciting than the defeatism and paranoia of the later Cure opus Pornography. Smith wanted to be clean again, but Curtis strove to be alive again.

Ending Joy Division’s career with “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, it all makes sense. However, one feels incomplete leaving the final word to “Decades” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (even though the ghostly synths of both are there to argue). It is more appropriate to end with “Ceremony” instead. Curtis’ last song written with his band, it puts us the living at the perfect vantage point. Left alone now to listen, we are also left watching forever as Curtis fades from view in historical first-person perspective on that tree-lined avenue.

Closer is like a diamond: beautiful, multifaceted, clear, hard, destructive, and immortal. Closer could easily have been No One Cares for goths. Instead it belongs to that distant world where Scott Walker and Nico live. It will always be there, but it will be here, too. The fact that the album is still heard today is proof of its power and beauty. The greatness and beauty that lies beneath its surface is a source of joy and wonder for those who can look into it coolly. This was Joy Division’s last album, but its revelations still continue. One has only to listen….

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