On The Inescapable Darkness Of Joy Division's 'Closer'

The final three songs of the band's final record stand uncontested as musical portents of doom...
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The final three songs of the band's final record stand uncontested as musical portents of doom...
Joy_Division_Closer.jpg

 "God, that song is so depressing."

"Oh I don't like *insert band name*, they're just so depressing."

Dismissing a band, song or album simply because they're 'depressing' is something that has always puzzled and infuriated me. Firstly on purely technical grounds. Can a song actually make someone depressed? Does it actively reduce the serotonin levels in the brain? But more to the point, so what if a band is dark, or deals with the bleaker side of life? Isn't that what so much great art does? Van Gogh didn't paint his self portrait because he was full of the joys of spring. When Plath wrote 'The Bell Jar', she most likely wasn't wearing a shit-eating grin.

Of course music, like any other art form, should, and does explore every aspect of the human condition, from deep joy, to crushing disappointment, to rage, to love. But I don't think it's unreasonable to say that much of the best art and music does confront the uglier, or at least more difficult side of life; broken relationships, shattered dreams and, yes, depression. But it's an exploration of those feelings, and that's why we listen to music like that, to hear someone else's expression of what we're feeling. And if you're lucky enough not to have had those thoughts and feelings that are being expressed, is it not a great insight into the psyche of others to hear such things expressed? I have never understood why people hearing songs like this would actually become depressed themselves. With perhaps one exception.

There's not much I could possibly say about Joy Division's second album 'Closer' that hasn't already been said many times, far better than I could ever say it. It's a towering album, one of the all-time greatest British records. But it is a bit dark. An album with an opening track called 'Atrocity Exhibition' isn't going to be your average pop album, and the darkness doesn't really relent from the second we hear Stephen Morris' unconventional drumming open the album. It does, however, increase particularly with the last three tracks. Despite what I said, 'Twenty Four Hours', 'The Eternal' and 'Decades' could well be the most depressing sixteen minutes, forty five seconds ever committed to record.

If you're not already depressed, these three tracks have the power to take you there. If you're contemplating suicide, these tracks could quite possibly push you over the edge. Like the preceding songs, the music is sparse and synth-heavy. Peter Hook's bass is droning, guitars are minimal or low in the mix, and the funereal church organ sound on 'Decades' is particularly apt. The lyrics are a blunt dissection of Ian Curtis' failing marriage; 'a cloud hangs over me, marks every move. Deep in the memory of what once was love' and the domesticity which seemed to horrify him; 'with children my time is so wastefully spent', as well as meditations on mental illness and the dehumanising effects of war, all delivered by Curtis in a way that makes every word sound and feel like a portent of doom which, given the fact that he hanged himself just weeks after recording the album, they pretty much were.

The despair is palpable throughout the album, but reaches a wrenching nadir in its final third. Time hasn't lessened the impact of these tracks. In fact, listening to them as I write this, their impact has taken on new meaning. Now I'm a parent, Curtis' clear references to the child he left behind when he committed suicide (or at least what I interpret as such) hit particularly hard.

Despite what the remaining members of the band have claimed in the intervening years, Joy Division carefully and deliberately cultivated their gloomy image, not least in Anton Corbijn's iconic and much imitated photography of the band. But it wasn't just posturing, and it didn't take Curtis' eventual suicide to tell us this. And this is no better encapsulated than in the final three tracks of this landmark album.

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