Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Joy Division's Closer

With a name that contradicts the barely containable terror and sense of impending doom that comprises the band's stock in trade, Joy Division was one of post-punk's foremost acts, turning out distinctive songs that were visceral and cerebral at the same time, filled to the brim with requisite amounts of vitriol, as well as remorse and guilt. Needless to say, countless miserablist-themed contemporary music genres (e.g. neo-psychedelia, sadcore, Goth-rock, the Paisley Underground and shoegazing) all had their roots in the unique brand of post-punk that Joy Division espoused in their short existence between 1977 to 1980.

The late, perpetually troubled Ian Curtis, Joy Division's tragic poet-cum-musical martyr frontman, was the band's most recognisable feature, instantly distinguishable by his desolate, all-hope-is-gone, elegiac lyrics, his monotone-like yet affecting vocals, and perhaps most striking of all, his disturbingly kinetic, almost-epileptic stage flailings, the infamous "fly dance". Of course, Joy Division wasn't simply Curtis alone, despite his overwhelming, awe-inspiring presence: his bandmates were as integral a part of the band as he was. If not for Bernard Sumner's corrosive, ragged guitar riffs, Peter Hook's ghostly, high-register bass lines, and Stephen Morris' astonishingly precise powerhouse drumming, Joy Division would merely be one of a few million post-punk outfits littering the fertile musical landscape of the late 1970s.

Out of the three official Joy Division studio albums, 1980's 'Closer' remains the most compelling and outstanding, with a palpable air of bleakness hanging over the proceedings like a disembodied wraith. This is probably due to the fact that it is the band's last recorded material, immortalised on tape just before Curtis' shocking suicide by hanging in May 1980. It is also Joy Division's most realised body of work, successfully bringing together all the artistic and lyrical elements and nuances that made the group such a persuasive musical force, even after nearly 30 years after their disbandment.

"Closer" opens with the rumbling percussion, jagged guitar grindings and moaning vocalisms of the aptly named "Atrocity Exhibition", a perfect showcase for the band's remarkable, almost instinctive synergy. The kinetic, proto-synth-pop "Isolation" is up next, a clear indicator of the direction that Sumner, Hook and Morris would embark upon as New Order after the dissolution of their first band.

However, the pace is slowed down for the third track, "Passover", a disheartening, disconsolate ditty about the inevitability of a predestined fate, marked by Sumner's controlled guitar pyrotechnics. The skittish, restless "Colony" brings things up to speed again, with Morris' extraordinary, suitably anxious percussion work, anchored by a curt, Hook-y (as it was) bass groove. This is followed by the insistent, stubbornly adamant "A Means to an End", and the echoing, starkly spectral six-minute "Heart and Soul" (which also lent its name to the authoritative, exhaustive 1997 Joy Division box set).

The final run of "Closer" is highlighted by arguably its most noteworthy number, the histrionic, height-of-joylessness lament "Twenty Four Hours", which could well be the most distressing and devastating composition in the band's entire oeuvre (complete with the knowing line "Just for one moment, I thought I'd found my way/destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away"). The sepulchral, slow-motion funeral marches "The Eternal" and "Decades" that provide the joint conclusion for "Closer" sound like appropriate epitaphs for Curtis, as he drifts towards a cul-de-sac of a future.

So, "Closer" will remain a bona fide gem in the annals of rock history, simultaneously absorbing and accomplished, and a true testament to the genius of the late, lamented Curtis. Even if the tracks here might seem inhospitable and detached for the first-time listener, subsequent hearings will reveal sonically interesting details and remarkable textures that all contribute toward "Closer"'s stature as one of the most important rock albums of the late 20th century, to utilise a hackneyed truism. Be warned, though: this is not for the faint of heart, so mainstream chart fans are well-advised to steer clear of this bleakly despondent and forbidding, but utterly virtuosic and exceptional masterpiece.


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