Joy Division in 1980 was a band at the top of its game, so driven by creativity and new ideas that they released back to back classic albums in the span of less than a year. These two albums, Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980) stood out at the time because they sounded like nothing else that had ever been done. Twenty years later they still stand out for exactly the same fucking reason. If you don't know who Joy Division is, go downtown to your nearest trendy underground record store and ask the person with glasses working behind the counter. Joy Division is a record store geek's dream come true, and anybody with too much time on their hands who really knows their shit about music will have heard this. Joy Division combined the desolate electronics and mechanics of the beginning of 80's new wave and industrial music with the minimalism and deep emotional scars and desperation of late period punk. And although a lot of influence has been taken from this band's sound, to this day there are still no other bands that sound like Joy Division.
The key to the sound of this band lies in its ability to move through complex emotional peaks and valleys with stark minimal instrumentation by using silence and the empty spaces between notes to add resonance and by adding slight understated changes in volume and pitch. They can create entirely different moods at separate parts of the song without really altering their underlying structure. 24 Hours for example moves from apathetic desolation to cathartic rage with a simple shift in tempo and then effortlessly back again with the addition of a slow keyboard line into the mix. Compared to modern bands who follow a verse chorus verse pattern, whining and then screaming on the chorus, Joy Division's ability to manipulate emotion without drawing attention to the changes is the key to their hypnotic ability to draw you in to the mood of a song.
The other essential key to this band's sound lies in Ian Curtis' ability to communicate deep rooted feelings of fear, alienation, and despair with robotic sounding emotionless vocals. There is something uniquely unsettling and real in his complete resignation and in the utter lack of emotion in the vocals on this record. Curtis' performance comes off very real, not as someone creating a character for a song or interpreting despair for the sake of good lyrics. He doesn't sound like countless imitators trying to be goth by singing in a flat monotone voice. He sounds like someone who has already given up on life and honestly doesn't give a fuck what you think. That is the difference between Joy Division and all the bands that followed them.
The lyrics are incredibly dark and unflinching in their outlook on life and the awkward reality of human relationships, the way that compromise ultimately destroys dreams. Curtis has a gift for narrative and stark detailed imagery that sets these lyrics apart from the cliched attempts at doom and gloom that so many goth bands have done to death. In the The Eternal he describes sitting and watching a funeral procession move by quietly on a fall day and uses it for a metaphor of how life has already passed him by on the inevitable progression toward death, the real theme of the album. The human suffering of a gladiator death match is used in Atrocity Exhibition to parallel Curtis' own tendency to go into violent epileptic seizures during performances (For entertainment they watch his body twist) and of the audience's fascination with his very real suffering, promising ultimately to take the listener on a voyeuristic tour of human pain and horror for their amusement. Ian Curtis killed himself right after recording this album. Taken as Curtis' suicide note, the overwhelming themes of resignation and loss of hope in Closer are all the more obvious to anyone paying attention. This was someone communicating from the other side. "The past is now part of my future, The present is well out of hand" (Heart and Soul), "Watching the reel as it comes to a close, Brutally taking its time, Can I go on with this train of defense, Disturbing and purging my mind, I count up my duties -when all's said and done, I know that I'll lose every time" (Passover). Feelings like that can't be faked, and twenty years of distance doesn't diminish the fact that Ian Curtis wasn't fucking kidding when he wrote them down.
Musically, the band was doing a lot of experimentation with electronics and keybards and different ways of playing instruments. Peter Hook's tendency to play his bass like a guitar and his obsession with using high end notes creates some interesting effects on the music and is one of the reasons their sound is so hard to copy. Not all of the songs are morbidly slow either, in fact some of the songs (Isolation, A Means To An End) could have passed for pop music if it wasn't for the weird time signatures and death obsessed lyrics. It sounds extremely fucked up to hear Curtis' dark vocals and lyrics over the top of what is occasionally upbeat sounding music. That's another reason why Joy Division is different. They weren't trying to write gothic music, it just came about naturally from their sound even when they were trying to write pop singles (Love Will Tear Us Apart). It was something that was inherent in this band regardless of whether or not they were trying to do it. Joy Division has a sound that will take some getting used to for first time listeners. The cold mechanical nature of the music, the odd sounding vocals, the overwhelming darkness of the lyrics, it all sounds very strange at first and it takes more than a few listens to realize the genuis behind their sound. If you haven't heard Joy Division before, download 24 Hours and The Eternal. Listen to these songs about ten times each and tell me that they aren't some of the greatest fucking songs ever written. From start to finish this album is nothing short of incredible. Closer is a fitting epitaph for Joy Division and for Ian Curtis, capturing the soulless struggle of modern life eloquently and honestly for generations of messed up people to follow. Joy Division's influence can be heard in post-punk, new wave, alternative music, metal, industrial music, and probably a hundred other genres. They were pretty much responsible for goth. For a brief time around 1980 they were probably the best band in existence. Even if you've never heard of them, if you like good music then chances are your favorite band fucking loves Joy Division. Buy this album now.***** Reviewed: September, 2003 "Punk only allowed the expression of a simple emotion. Sooner or later, someone is going to take the simplicity of the instrumentation, the power of its simplicity, its attitude, and express more complex emotions. Punk would just say fuck you. Someone had to use punk and say we are lost - that happened to be Joy Division." - Bernard Sumner