Saturday, July 14, 2018

Closer (1980)

I have a distinct memory of someone somewhere writing about Joy Division and, when it came to their second and last album, portentously remarking, "The only question now was, closer to what?" It's a good question, as the album came out after Ian Curtis's suicide and bore further alarming and eloquent evidence of his state of mind. In many ways the titles by themselves paint the picture (though all songs are jointly credited to Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner): "Atrocity Exhibition" (the album opener, featuring a tractor and Curtis repeating, "This is the way, step inside"). Then "Isolation," "Passover"—really, I'm just giving you the album sequence here. "Colony" is fourth. In a word association game, at this point, I would be saying "Kafka." It goes on. The prevailing vanity—it's not just Curtis, everyone is pitching in to make this work—is of the meditated gaze into the abyss (or "The Eternal," second-last song). "Closer to what?" indeed. At the same time, ever since I read some other wag asking how to pronounce the title, my brain has consistently flipped to the version with the "z" sound, as in "the last part of a performance, collection, or series" (and not "a person who is skilled at bringing a business transaction to a satisfactory conclusion"). We can make some guesses about how far these folks would have gone with Curtis—and we can make some guesses about how far Curtis could have ever gone—but somehow the history of what actually happened is about as far as I can imagine it. This feels like a signoff, a denouement, a finale—a closer, even if it's really just the end of the overture. The music and songs are dramatic but not sentimental in the same way as Unknown Pleasures. And it's not surprising that a band identity this close to the void could end up with someone swallowed into it.

Here's another weird thing for me about this album. You might think I am overly interested in morbid things, and that the death of an artist would find me plunging into the catalog, but in fact I tend to go the other way. I might spend a few days listening to music or inevitably hearing it via media in the gyrations of the moment, but generally I put things away after the event for a long time, and don't always get back to them. So it went with Closer. I finally got a copy at some point but rarely listened. I never thought it was that good, too lackluster or mannered or something, but also I felt uncomfortable listening to it. This went on so long I finally decided I must just not like it as much as Unknown Pleasures. But going back one more time turned out to be the charm as the album has finally sparked up for me pretty good. Once again it's a stacked concept product. The band is steadily improving—that's heard better on the live shows included in the later editions. Producer Martin Hannett is at the helm again and gives it a similar claustrophobic from-the-bottom-of-a-well buff. The cover art lives just as squarely in the humanities vein. Where Unknown Pleasures had looked to science, a vast universe, and the Enlightenment with its graphic representation of a pulsar, Closer ushers us into an Italian tomb, suggesting medieval darkness, with a potent grace emerging from the composition of the photo and sculptures. One album is looking up at the night sky, the other is looking into the moldy earth. One album is black, the other is white. There are a lot of binaries here—and a lot of balance as well. The vision is consistent. So is the quality. Again, it may be hard to imagine listening to them habitually, but both Unknown Pleasures and Closer are great albums.

1 comment:

  1. I know the Manchester sound can mean all kinds of things to people (Smiths, Happy Mondays, Oasis, even New Order, etc) but it'll always be Joy Division to me. Dystopic decaying industrial England late-70s. Also, isn't the band, including Hannett, one of the great DIY stories of punk? They sounds more like a band of composers than a band of musicians. Classic.