Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Closer - The 9 Circles of Hell - Joy Division

In the beginning, Joy Division was a punk band. Their first EP, An Ideal For Living, recorded in December '77, shows no sign of the doom and depression that would permeate their music a year later. Ian Curtis, like Paul's one, two three four, in "I Saw Her Standing There" signaling the Beatles arrival on the scene, opens the EP with the odd, "3-5-0-1-2-5, GO!" It was punk's version, 15 years on, with no less impact. Ian's lyrics are angry and frustrated, rather than fatalistic, with Sumner playing the wildest, fastest, sloppiest licks of his career on "Warsaw" and "Failures." Indeed, for all the negative energy released during the punk era, it took the movement a good two years before it started generating genuinely bleek, depressed, when-will-it-end music, you know, Joy Division.

That the band ultimately named itself Joy Division, referring to the Jewish girls in House of Dolls, was not itself indicative, considering the frequent fascination of punk bands, beginning with the Sex Pistols, with Nazi imagery, for shocking allegorical purposes. The Joy Division being the name given the dorm of women, mostly young girls, spared from the gas chamber for the sexual pleasure of Nazi soldiers. But as long as the band was named Warsaw, they played routine, derivative punk; the name change accompanying a major stylistic shift, opening the floodgates for legions of bands in their wake. Joy Division was that split that divided pure punk from post-punk, Goth, grunge, alt-rock, emo, you name it; the fact remains that Joy Division simply had no competition in the arena of bleak pop sans The Cure. Modern rock begins then with Unknown Pleasures. Recorded over the first two weeks of April 1979, in Stockport's Strawberry Studios (set up by 10cc), Unknown Pleasures had a Doors-like hierarchy: Ian Curtis as the lyricist and vocalist, the three bandmates writing and recording the music around his shamanism. (It's interesting to compare this to Waters in The Wall, as well.)

Chart impact of the album was imperceptible (#71 on the UK charts, and not released overseas at all due to the complete lack of promotion or even any singles to accompany the record). Reviews were largely positive, but Unknown Pleasures, and Joy Division in general were, cultivated a posteriori, when depressed grungers and alt-rockers kicked out the Style and brought back The Jam; here were the new flagbearers of guitar-based popular music. (“God bless mummy and daddy, and please, God, you made it happen once, let it happen again, Amen.)

o o o

Unlike Unknown PleasuresCloser takes time to set in. The songs are slower, longer, more repetitive, less flashy, and even more dependent on atmosphere — not a comfortable kind of atmosphere, either. A kind of atmosphere created by a 24-year old man with the mind of an 80-year old recluse, fed up with and let down by all of earthly pleasures, Closer is an album about the end of The World — where The World is understood from a purely personal perspective.

Interestingly, Closer sold far better than Unknown Pleasures, despite it lack of accessibility. In comparison, Closer, which went all the way to No. 6 on the UK charts, is a far more difficult album. Of course two factors led to its ultimate success: the suicide of Ian Curtis on May 18, 1980, which made the reclusive and deranged frontman one of the most talked about people in Britain, and the release of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as a single in June: the song, became a smash hit, and certified both the ensuing success of Closer and the Ian-less Joy Division as New Order. 

Although the record did not originate as an intentionally conceptional suite, common thematic threads run through it, and the overall flow is nearly perfect. Straight off  the listener is beckoned: "This is the way, step inside," and there is little doubt as to the location of the place to which we are invited. Closer is Ian's personal journey through the Nine Circles of Hell, and you could probably attach a special name to each one — just off the top of my head, here's a try: Cruelty (ʻAtrocity Exhibitionʼ), Loneliness (ʻIsolationʼ), Madness (ʻPassoverʼ), Seclusion (ʻColo­nyʼ), Disillusionment (ʻA Means To An Endʼ), Fatalism (ʻHeart And Soulʼ), Agony (ʻTwenty Four Hoursʼ), Mourning (ʻThe Eternalʼ), and, finally, Cosmic Grief (ʻDecadesʼ). In other words, a fairly jolly party record, this one — do not forget to bring it to all the birthdays and weddings you are invited to, just to remind people of, you know, that other side of the coin.

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