Joy Division Closer was released one year after the release of their first album Unknown Pleasures. Anyone who imagined that the music of these four men who by all accounts did not seem especially dark themselves could not attain a more somber and at times almost frightening tone soon discovered the folly of trying to predict what others are capable of creating. If Unknown Pleasures has the power to make you feel a little guilty at overhearing a therapy session by a depressed patient, then Closer has the power to make you weep after reading a suicide note and realizing something should have been done; it didn’t have to end that way.
At the time of its recording, of course, the lyrics lying deep within Martin Hannett’s mix of the music on Joy Division Closer must not have been such an obvious cry for help. Recording of Joy Division’s second album concluded on March 30, 1980. A month and a half later—and several months before the album’s release—Ian Curtis took his own life. The jackhammer sonic panorama that gives the album’s opening song—“Atrocity Exhibition”—a musical power that matches the power of Curtis’ lyrics sets the stage for spiraling emotional psychodrama that only in retrospect can clearly be called a musical suicide note.The angst-driven gloomy mood of industrial punk rock hinted at on Unknown Pleasures is given full range to bloom on Closer and there is something truly remarkable about the fact that in the decades since its release no other band has quite managed to tap into the special magic of deceptively simple little touches like the keyboards that endow “Decades” with its elegiac personality or the choppy, staccato guitar that plays off the booming rhythm of Stephen Morris’ drumming that makes “Colony” somehow succeed both as pure punk energy and heavy metal bombast.
When Joy Division became New Order following the death of Ian Curtis, the arrival of keyboardist Gilbert essentially allowed the introduction of a synth-heavy composition to take the place of Curtis’ brooding baritone vocals as one the defining characteristics of the band’s sound. What links the best of Joy Division’s songs on its two studio albums and the albums of New Order is another definitive element as easily recognized as it is groundbreaking. A casual listen of both Unknown Pleasures and Closer can serve to make the listener overlook how the melody on these songs are actually driven by Peter Hook’s bass. Yes, the bass guitar sets the groundwork for the melody on which the beat is set. The decision to kick off Unknown Pleasures with the song “Disorder” was a wise one as the sonic heights set by Hook’s bass playing will prove to be a dependable constant as the members of Joy Division went on to establish themselves as one of the most versatile bands in rock history, capable of producing the masterpiece of synth-dance music “Blue Monday” as well as darker Joy Division-style guitar heavy songs such as “Love Vigilantes.”
Those familiar only with the band in their incarnation as New Order may at times be shocked to listen to these two albums and realize just how different the music of their humble origins really is from the music they would become famous for. What is most astonishing about Unknown Pleasures and Closer is how no other band has ever managed to duplicate that signature tone.
Great pop songs do abound on Joy Division Closer in the form of “Isolation” and “Heart and Soul” but even the power of rock cannot erase the subtext here. A powerful goodbye from a man who seems to be incapable of fully understanding the demons driving him to his own self-destruction.