In the three years this blog has been running, I’ve never reviewed a Joy Division studio album, and I think part of the reason is that it’s not going to be easy. But this week sees the 35th anniversary of the release of their second LP Closer, and however bad a job I end up doing, it only seems right to give it a go.
For all of Ian Curtis‘s strengths as a lyric writer, Joy Division can be impenetrable at times, and so their choices of opening track were always going to come across as difficult. The listener needs time to engage with what’s being said, and I’m not sure Atrocity Exhibition gives them that chance. Even if you came straight from the preceding album Unknown Pleasures (1979) I suspect you might find this a hard song to listen to.
For the most part, though, Closer is more consistent than Unknown Pleasures. It may lack the exceptional backbone of New Dawn Fades and She’s Lost Control, but it has a lot of good tracks, that combined, more than make up for that. Isolation is the first of these, with its slightly cheery synth part that conflicts strongly with the dark lyrics. Closer was, sadly, released just a couple of months after Curtis’s tragic suicide, and it’s difficult not to remember that when listening.
As an album, it hints intriguingly at the band’s future, as Isolation employs obscure vocal effects and ends in a very odd manner. Passover is less experimental, but is instead a great rhythmic piece which could have easily been converted into a disco anthem if you really wanted to make Curtis turn in his grave.
Other songs require more of a personal connection, which Colony and Means to an End lack for me. Make no mistake, both are classic Joy Division, but neither grabs me the way that some of their songs do. On the subject of which, the omission of both Atmosphere and Love Will Tear Us Apart from this collection is certainly curious when viewed with 21st century eyes. Most likely, as with New Order over the subsequent years, they saw each release as a unique product, where any crossover was unnecessary rather than expected, but it’s certainly tempting to wonder if Closer could have been improved by including one or both of them.
Side B kicks off with Heart and Soul, one of the more iconic Joy Division song titles. It’s also tempting to see it as a blueprint for the later New Order sound, with its almost disco bassline and creative drumming. It’s also comforting to hear Curtis singing slightly out of tune – music doesn’t need to be pitch perfect, contrary to what The X Factor might try to teach us.
Twenty Four Hours is probably one of the most atmospheric songs on here, with another haunting, poetic vocal punctuated by dramatic instrumental parts. But The Eternal might be the best piece on here, with another dark vocal, and some fascinating experimental backing. This is everything you want from Joy Division and more.
This album – and, ignoring a lot of compilations and reissues, their career – closes with Decades. It’s still pretty dark, although punctuated by moments of happiness, and reminds you that you probably wouldn’t want this LP to be any longer. But Closer is a poignant second album for Joy Division, as their career as a group was tragically cut short, but it shows promise that New Order would struggle to see again for several years. And, as with everything in their catalogue, it’s an essential album.
The definitive version of Closer would probably be the LP, but it looks as though the best CD or digital version might be the recent remaster. Tread carefully, as it seems some versions suffered from questionable sound quality.