It is almost forty years to the day since the release of the second and final album by Joy Division. An album that had a lot to live up to, it has grown a mythology over the years that has elevated it to a pinnacle of critical and public praise that, at times, overshadows the music and skews the narrative of an album that deserves alternate readings.
Released mere months after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, ‘Closer’ has understandably always been read in the context of depression, darkness and death. Less discussed are Curtis’ struggles both maritally and with epilepsy, both of which permeate through the lyrical themes of ‘Closer’. The result is a common sense that this is a singular album of darkness and genius. Less understood is the way that ‘Closer’ very closely reflects the musical trends and momentum of the band's Post-Punk peers at that time.
For a start, this album grooves. From opener ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ on down, each track is crafted around a locked-in rhythm groove. Each is minimal, stripped to its essence, but each is rich, propulsive and dynamic. It is not the Funk or Dub based groove of peers such as Public Image Ltd or Gang of Four. Instead the rhythm section is taught, playing more akin to a Talking Heads intro stretched out to fill three minutes of rolling tension. Nonetheless, it’s a side of ‘Closer’ too often glossed over. The role band mates Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook played in writing the album is regularly downplayed in opposition to the work of Curtis and Producer Martin Hannett. Yet it’s clear that the groove the band established on their supreme run of singles through late ‘79 and early ‘80 including ‘Transmission’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ hasn’t been abandoned. The fact that the trio would go on to form the band New Order, where they would perfect their clipped, repetitive grooves, helps this shine through.
Lyrically, ‘Closer’ is very much an album of self-reflection and inner turmoil, but it still holds direct lessons and questions directed towards the listener. Nowhere is that more clear than in the way Curtis crafts a weave of unsettled ennui throughout. While fear and ever-present danger were common themes for many bands of the era, a move from tangible threats towards a reckoning with one's own psyche was the driving force throughout 1979 and ‘80. To capture the vibe we need only look at Magazine’s ‘The Correct Use of Soap’ or even ‘Sandinista’ by The Clash, both also released in 1980, to feel the collective oppressive weight.
As a progression from their debut, ‘Unknown Pleasures’, the band moved further into a literary, poetic sense of loathing while embracing danceable grooves. Together, these place the evolution of Joy Division in step with their peers and early 80s musical trends. Alongside those already mentioned, Talking Heads would release ‘Remain in Light’ in 1980, while The Jam would simplify while celebrating boredom and unease on ‘Sound Affects’ the same year. It was an era of future classics and ‘Closer’ has gone down in history as one of the very best. What marks it out, however, is not that it is a particularly unique album, as is sometimes written, but instead that Joy Division not only captured the zeitgeist of contemporary trends, but led the pack.