The music of Joy Division – an art-minded English postpunk band that initially struck reviewers as a tuneful version of PiL – sets forth an even more indelible vision of gloom. In fact, it's a vision so steeped in deathly fixations that it proved fatal: on May 18th, 1980, the group's lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis – a shy, reticent man who'd written some of the most powerfully authentic accounts of dissolution and despair since Lou Reed – hung himself at his home in Macclesfield, England, at the age of twenty-three. According to journalistic accounts, he'd been depressed over failed love. According to his songs, he'd looked upon the horror of mortal futility and understood the gravity of what he saw: "Heart and soul – one will burn." In the U.K., Curtis' suicide conferred Joy Division with mythical status. The band's second and last album, Closer (recorded just prior to Curtis' death and released shortly afterward by Factory), became one of the fastest-selling independent-label LPs in British New Wave history. By year's end, it had topped several critics' and readers' polls as best album. More significant, an entire legion of Joy Division emulators – most notably Section Twenty-Five, Crispy Ambulance, Mass, Sort Sol and the Names – has since cropped up around England, each professing the same icy passion for sepulchral rhythms, minor-mode melodies and mordant truths.
The danger in all of this grim-faced, wide-eyed hagiography, of course, is that it serves to idealize Curtis' death and ignore the fact that he contributed and submitted to the wretchedness he reviled by committing the act of self-murder. Why bother then with music so seemingly dead-end and depressing? Maybe because, in the midst of a movement overrun by studied nihilism and faddish despair, it's somehow affecting to hear someone whose conviction ranged beyond mere truisms. Maybe because Ian Curtis' descent into despair leaves us with a deeper feeling of our own frailty. Or maybe even because it's fascinating to hear a man's life and desire fading away, little by little, bit by bit. Yet none of that really says much about how obsessing Joy Division's music can be, how it can draw you into its desolate, chiaroscuro atmosphere and fearful, irretrievable circuits. Draw you in and threaten to leave you there.
Actually, Joy Division didn't make all that much music. The group's earliest work – demo tapes recorded under the name Warsaw and a debut EP, Ideal for Living (some of which will appear in a forthcoming import album) – was a worthy but hardly exceptional example of a band attempting to forge art-rock influences (mostly David Bowie, Brian Eno and Roxy Music) and primitivist archetypes (some Sex Pistols, a little Who) into a frenetic counterpoise. By the time of their first LP, Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division had tempered their style, planishing it down to a doleful, deep-toned sound that often suggested an elaborate version of the Velvet Underground or an orderly Public Image Ltd. In its most pervading moments – in numbers like "Day of the Lords," "Insight" and "New Dawn Fades," with their disoriented melodies and punishing rhythms – it was music that could purvey Curtis' alienated and fatalistic sensibility. But it was also music that could rush and jump and push, and a composition like "Disorder" – or better still, the later single "Transmission," with its driving tempo and roiling guitars – seemed almost spirited enough to dispel the gloom it so doggedly invoked.
Yet Joy Division never really aspired toward transcendence. In fact, their most obsessive, most melodic piece of music, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," raises the possibility and then sadly shuts the door on it. A flurry of thrashing guitars and drums – crashing out the same insistent backbeat that impels the Clash's "Safe European Home" – launches the song, then surrenders to the plaint of a solitary synthesizer and Ian Curtis' frayed singing. "When routine bites hard," he murmurs, "And ambitions are low/And resentment rides high/But emotions won't grow . . . / Then love – love will tear us apart – again." By tune's end, Curtis has run out of will, but the music hasn't. Thick, surging synthesizer lines – mimicking the hook from Phil Spector's "Then He Kissed Me" – surround and batter the singer as he half talks, half croons the most critical verse of his career: "And there's a taste in my mouth/As desperation takes hold/Yeah, that something so good/Just can't function no more.
Closer seems resigned to fatality from the start. It descends, with a gravity and logic all its own, from the petrifying scenario of "Atrocity Exhibition" (a story about a world that proffers degradation of the flesh as sport) to the raw, raging "Twenty Four Hours," in which Curtis allows himself a last, longing glance at the fading vista of existence: "Just for one moment/Thought I found my way/Destiny unfolded/I watched it slip away."
But Closer doesn't stop there. Instead, it takes us through the numbing ritual of a funeral procession ("The Eternal") and then, in the mellifluent "Decades," into the very heart of paradise lost:
We knocked on the doors of hell's darker chambers
Pushed to the limits, we dragged ourselves in
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying
We saw ourselves now as we never have seen
Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration
The sorrows we suffered and never were free.
The unknown now appears known, maybe even comforting. "We're inside now, our hearts lost forever," sings Curtis in a voice as rueful as Frank Sinatra's. Somehow, it's the album's most beguiling moment.
In the end, Closer accedes to horror, settles into frozen straits of inviolable damnation. The music turns leaden, gray and steady because it means to fulfill a vision of a world where suffering is unremitting and nothingness is quiescent. Joy Division's art is remarkably eloquent and effective, yet it lacks the jolting tone of revolt that PiL's work, even at its most indulgent, boasts: that desire to attack and disarm the world, to make it eat its own hopelessness. Ian Curtis died for reasons that are probably none of our business, but it would seem, at least in part, that he killed himself to slay that portion of the world that so hurt and appalled him. John Lydon lives because he's figured out a way (more than once) to knock off the world and live beyond it.
Guitarist Bernie Albrecht, bassist Peter Hooke and drummer Stephen Morris (the three surviving members of Joy Division) have, with a guitarist named Gillian, formed a group called New Order. This band faces not only the task of living up to its own mythic past, but of getting by the pain of that past and the shadow of Ian Curtis. New Order's initial single, "Ceremony" (reportedly written while Curtis was still alive), says that they probably can. It's a transfixing, vehement, big-sounding piece of music, brimming with the taut cross lines of blaring guitars and an indomitable, bottom-heavy rhythm section. Behind it all, mixed somewhere along with the hi-hat so that his singing sibilates in pulsing waves, Bernie Albrecht makes a chancy vocal debut, telling an impassioned tale about bitter memories, ineradicable losses and unbeaten determination.
Ironically, these images of resolve and recovery seem to suggest the same conviction that Joy Division – who, after all, took their name from the euphemism used to describe the prostitute section of German concentration camps – intended to convey in the first place: that no horror, no matter how terrible, is unendurable. Maybe that sounds as joyless and morose as everything else about Joy Division's music, but it shouldn't. In this case, it's nothing less than a surpassing testament to the life force itself.