Closer at 40: There’s More than Gloom to Joy Division’s Final Album

Shortly after the suicide of Joy Division’s singer, Ian Curtis, their label owner called their graphic designer, who literally had a grave realization. “We’ve got a tomb on the cover of the album,” Peter Saville told Factory Records’ co-founder Tony Wilson. “Oh, fuck,” he replied.

The cover of the band’s second and final album, Closer, which was already in production, features a family tombstone at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy. Bathed in shadow are carved sculptures of the Virgin Mary, St. John, and Mary Magdalene mourning a recently slain Jesus. Which could arguably double as guitarist-keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris mourning their late singer.

Some listeners and journalists took it that way; they accused Factory Records of tastelessly advertising Curtis’ death, despite the fact that Closer’s cover had been chosen by the entire band weeks prior when Saville showed them a magazine full of photographs of the tomb by Bernard Pierre Wolff. “They all crowded around the drawing board and turned the pages,” Saville says in the band’s 2019 oral history, This Searing Light, The Sun, and Everything Else. “They were still four friends in something together; nobody was more important than anyone else.”

Forty years after its release, Closer mostly deserves its reputation as Curtis’ last will and testament. “This is the way, step inside,” the 23-year-old instructs on “Atrocity Exhibition,” as if he’s the ferryman that rows new arrivals to Hades. While the music is nothing if not morose, there’s more than depression and death under its hood, from literary inspirations to Martin Hannett’s innovative production to the psychological phenomena experienced by its main architect.

The album’s macabre opener was titled after The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard’s 1970 collection of what the author called “condensed novels.”

“I’d written the lyrics way before I read [the book],” Curtis clarified in a 1980 interview with Extro magazine in which he also name-dropped William S. BurroughsThe Wild Boys and Naked Lunch. “Sometimes I just can’t think of a good title. Anyway, I just saw this title at the beginning of one of his books and I thought that it just fitted with the ideas in the lyrics.”

Despite downplaying his literary acuity, “Ian was an incredibly cultured young man,” graphic designer Jon Wozencroft asserts in This Searing Light. “You take some of the references: for example, ‘Colony,’ which is Franz Kafka.” Indeed, that churning track was inspired by the Bohemian novelist’s 1919 short story, “In the Penal Colony,” about the moral uncertainties surrounding a brutal state-sponsored torture-execution machine.

“Why they’re such an important band for the moment is because they were dealing with a lot of digital paradigms … alienation, loneliness, space, materiality, the city spaces,” Wozencroft continues. “This is all digital aesthetics basically, 25, 30 years before we find ourselves in these conditions. I mean, just the ability to place J.G. Ballard within a musical context — amazing.”

As for the music on Closer, it’s remarkable how Joy Division drummed up a colossal vibe with a minimum of ingredients — voice, bass, drums, and keyboards. This is largely due to Hannett, who bathed the tracks in effects and mixed them to sound hollow and cavernous. All of this was to Hook’s chagrin at the time.

“Martin had fucking melted the guitar with his Marshall Time Waster,” he complained about the final mix of “Atrocity Exhibition” in his 2012 memoir, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. (Hook and Sumner switched instruments on the song.) “[He] made it sound like someone strangling a cat and, to my mind, absolutely killed the song. I was so annoyed with him and went in and gave him a piece of my mind but he just turned round and told me to fuck off.”

Hannett’s techniques elevated Closer a hair above their 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures. Take “Isolation,” the meat of which is a dead-simple drum machine track that Hannett cranked in the mix through unconventional means. “What Martin did was take the original drum track, flange it and effect it through his synth, then get Steve to overdub the drums so they were separate,” Hook explains in Unknown Pleasures. “Plus, he used the drums to trigger his synth, which was, again, ahead of its time.”

ian curtis joy division

For “Heart and Soul,” which Hook describes as a “very sexy song,” “Martin showed Barney how to layer and structure the keyboards, the strings especially,” Hook says in his memoir. On “The Eternal” and “Decades,” Sumner’s strings ominously loom like stalactites. “It really adds to the atmosphere,” he admits. “I was upset when I first heard it, but he was right and I was wrong.”

While Hook sparred with the producer, Curtis was in a complicated emotional state that “suicidal ideation” doesn’t fully describe. Sure, he was struggling with epileptic seizures and the breakdown of his marriage, but Hook described him as “cock-a-hoop, full of it” after their final rehearsal in May 1980. And while writing Closer, he reported feeling compelled by a mysterious outside force.

“Ian was saying to me that doing this album felt very strange because he felt that all his words were writing themselves and that he’s always, in the past, struggled to complete a song,” Sumner recalls in This Searing Light.

“He was writing about thoughts and dreams and feelings he had,” Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, who was romantically involved with Curtis at the time, says in the book. “I think he was using his own feelings, but his songs were a lot more than just himself.”

So, is Closer a gloomy listen? Without question. Does it function exclusively as a suicide note? Not really. In hindsight, it’s surprising how upbeat “A Means to an End,” “Heart and Soul” and “Twenty Four Hours” are, even if they exist just so the dirgelike “The Eternal” can draw them into its undertow. Although Curtis ended up taking his own life, he sometimes commented hopefully about the future, expressing a wish to move to Europe, open a bookshop and settle into more of a studio role than a touring one. “Which might have happened quite organically,” Wozencroft offers in the oral history. “A Brian Eno-type figure.”

That, obviously, isn’t what happened. But the introspection and innovation of Closer makes it more than a tombstone; it shows Joy Division could have developed into art-rock pioneers with peaks and valleys in their discography. Because at their core, Joy Division was a rock ‘n roll band with a charismatic, intelligent leader — not the human manifestation of a Hot Topic T-shirt.

“It was spontaneous, it was not calculated, you know, not artificial,” Honoré asserts in This Searing Light. “They just had the light, the spirit.” Their light may have been extinguished four decades ago, but Closer wasn’t the snuffer; it was a sign of how dazzling it could have been.

Editor’s note: The 40th-anniversary reissue of Closer, which comes bundled with remastered Transmission, Atmosphere, and Love Will Tear Us Apart singles, dropped in July 2020. Check it out here

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