It’s been thirty six years today since the Joy Division frontman, Ian Curtis, took his own life. He left behind an opus of work that is unprecedented in the music world and whose influence continues to be felt. I want to focus though, on the band’s second, and final, album, Closer.
First, a bit of background. Before the band recorded this album, Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy. He would often fit on stage and feel as though he’d let fans down who had come to see his group perform. His mental state worsened and he descended into a depression, which he depicts admirably and with a hard stare in the album. Shortly before the album was released Curtis took his own life.
Admittedly, it’s an album I can’t really listen to anymore. When I first heard it when I had my first depressive episode it cut too close to the bone and still does to this day. This isn’t to say, however, that I can’t appreciate it.
Curtis and the band depict the most accurate depiction of a disordered mood I have ever heard, and probably will ever hear, in music. The pulsating and deadening music collide with the fatalistic lyrics to create something of magnificent power and undeniable horror and clarity.
When Peter Hook played some memorial shows in Curtis’ hometown of Macclesfield, where he played the entire second album through, he stated that it was a testament to Curtis’ lyrical ability that audiences would remember the songs that often lacked choruses. And indeed, you would be a fool to doubt Curtis’ sheer lyrical ability alone, let alone his delivery of those lines.
“This the way, step inside” – and so Curtis ushers you in to a hellscape of complete and utter darkness. The music pulsates and oozes throughout the album, with the rare instrument of the bass often being high in the mix. Electronic elements are used and sound timeless, not something you can often say about synthesisers and other electronic instruments of the 80’s.
The album is filled with excellent metaphors that convey depression with a razor’s edge. Curtis sings on the opening track, “Atrocity Exhibition”, “In arenas he kills for a prize/Wins a minute to add to his life/But the sickness is drowned by cries for more/Pray to God, make it quick, watch him fall.” And the album is filled with moments like these, where a mental state is conveyed with such horrifying clarity that it’s nearly unbelievable. Curtis continues to sing “For entertainment they watch his body twist/Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’”
On the track “Passover” Curtis sings “Can I go on with this train of events? Disturbing and purging my mind/Back out of my duties, when all’s said and done/I know that I’ll lose every time.” The overall mood of the album is one of fatalism and utter disappointment. You can hear the pain and sheer rejection in Curtis’s voice when he coolly sings on the track “Twenty Four Hours”, “Just for one moment I felt as though I’d found my way, destiny unfolded and I watched it slip away.”
The album ends with ‘Decades’ which sounds like a circus turned into a nightmare. Curtis sings that he “knocked on the door of Hell’s darker chamber”. And this is where the album delves, with horrifying and utterly cutting clarity. Evidently, Curtis the man could dwell there no more.
Suicides are often idolized and romanticised in the music world, but if Curtis’ words and music stand for anything it is the sheer undeniable horror of mental illness, and the human cost of that illness. It’s something to keep in mind during this Mental Health Awareness Week.