It’s now been 30 years since the British post-punk quartet Joy Division released its final (and best-known) single on the Manchester, England-based indie label Factory Records. Hitting record store shelves as a 7” vinyl release not long before the band’s singer Ian Curtis took his own life on May 18, 1980, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” became a totemic record in the aftermath of that tragedy, widely taken as the last will and testament of a riveting yet tormented frontman. It’s without a doubt the short-lived group’s signature song, and even to this day when the band’s name is mentioned, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has a 99.99% likelihood of being the first tune to come to mind.
Despite a legend the song cultivated almost immediately, (the original June 1980 Melody Maker review of the single described it as “Evocative, interesting… a powerfully original piece of music”), “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is not Joy Division’s best or most ambitious composition. Lacking the propulsive drive of “Transmission”, the dread anxiety of “She’s Lost Control”, and the sepulchral majesty of “Atmosphere”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is thin and subdued, almost undeserving of its acclaim. Rendered coldly distant by Martin Hannett’s trademark production, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook restrict themselves to repeating their personalized variations of the main melody riff on keyboard and bass, respectively, while Ian Curtis delivers half-hearted stabs of guitar throughout. Aside from Stephen Morris’ ever-frenetic drum rhythms, the band sounds sapped of strength on the final recording, as if it has succumbed to solemnly accepting its fated demise.
Yet it’s that precise quality that has made “Love Will Tear Us Apart” an enduring cult classic. Inhabiting that ghostly, funereal production, Curtis’ emotionally-numb crooning instills his words with pervading sense of regret that wouldn’t have been present had he opted for the doom-laden bellowing that populated Joy Division’s 1979 debut album Unknown Pleasures. Here, Curtis lays his soul bare, documenting his failings and offering no excuses. Illustrating a collapsing relationship where “routine bits hard” and “ambitions are low”, lines like “Why is the bedroom so cold / Turned away on your side / Is my timing that flawed? / Our respect runs so dry” perfectly convey the emotional gulf that has emerged between the narrator and his lover. For a singer who made his name embodying the existential despair of late ‘70s postindustrial Britain in song after song, the lines “Why is it something so good / Just can’t function no more?” just might be the most heart-wrenching words Curtis ever uttered on record.
The easy assumption to make is that “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is an autobiographical account of Curtis’ failing marriage (which by 1980 was headed for divorce due to the singer’s affair with a Belgian fan), and thus the primary rationale for why he committed suicide. That wouldn’t be a totally unfounded hypothesis given that Curtis spent his last night alive trying to convince his wife to drop her divorce suit, but that reading is based on the perspective of looking back upon the singer’s body of work with full knowledge of his marital troubles—details of which only became widely known in the 1990s—coupled with the song’s stature as the last Joy Division single, a status that begs for some greater meaning to be imparted upon it. Bear in mind that Curtis refused to explain any of his lyrics to the press (his bandmates, for their part, did not question the contents of his words until after his death).
Curtis was a very private man, so no one can say with utmost certainty that the song is explicitly Curtis’ manifesto on where his relationship with his wife stood at the time. For all anyone knows, he could have been talking about his relationship with his mistress, or crafting an elaborate metaphor that had nothing to do with romance at all. Grounding the content of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in Curtis’ personal life might even taint the song for some. After reading widow Deborah Curtis’ biography of the singer Touching from a Distance (1995) which documents Curtis’ emotional distance and controlling nature to the point of unlikeablity, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for the song’s narrator if he really is the same jerk described in the book. And while there is an element of tragic romance in the theory that Curtis’ guilt over his affair let him to kill himself, the increasingly debilitating epileptic seizures the singer suffered are just as (if not more) important a motive to consider.
But “Love Will Tear Us Apart” hasn’t become the post-punk era’s most enduring anthem simply due to its associations with Curtis’ failings as a husband and father. For those who grew up before Curtis’ personal life became bountiful source material for biographies and feature film, as well as people today discovering the song for the first time, what has always been readily apparent (and compelling) about “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is that it comes from a mournful, sad place, where the end of love has become a harsh yet inevitable reality. Few bands get the chance to end their careers on the absolutely perfect note, but Joy Division did.