Counterbalance No. 41: Joy Division’s 'Closer'
Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn take on Joy Division's Closer in this week’s edition of Counterbalance. It’s Number 41 on the Acclaimed Music list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. This is the way—step inside!
Mendelsohn: I love the Great List if for no other reason than its complete lack of musical semblance. One minute we are rocking out to James Brown and the next we get pitched a curve ball of an album by Joy Division. I'd like to think I could step up to the plate and hit this one out of the park, but the off-speed pitch that is Closer, has left me wanting. So I'll defer to you. Can you make this foul ball of a record make sense for me?
Klinger: You may have confused the hard-S Closer for the soft-S, ninth-inning-pitcher closer. Happens a lot. But let's try for a little context. By 1979, punk had revealed itself to be pretty much a dead end. Turns out there are only a finite number of ways to play four chords. Instead of making a beeline for the dogma of hardcore, some savvy bands recognized that there were two potentially better paths: you could expand your palette, like the Clash did with their glorious Technicolor panorama London Calling, or you could double down on the darkness, and that's what Joy Division did. Both of these approaches had attributes that did a great deal to create what became the sound of the next decade. And Closer further refines the sound that Joy Division began developing on their debut—the brittle drums, chattery guitars and hard, upfront bass all became a hallmark of the 1980s. And that's not even factoring in Ian Curtis' doomy intonations yet.
Mendelsohn: Doomy is right. This album is a rain-out from start to finish. And no, I'm not going to stop the baseball references. I need them to mask my fear and insecurity about this record, which was doubly compounded by actually having to listen to it.
I don't think this album is deserving of its spot on the list by itself, and before we get into the whole "where should it be ranked" argument, let me explain. For me, albums on the Great List fall into two different categories: the Stand Alone Great Album and the Influential Album. Sometimes the Stand Alone album is as equally influential but the strictly Influential Album is rarely Stand Alone Great (you'll have people who disagree but whatever). Most of the top 25 fall into both categories but when you get beyond that we start to see some differentiation.
The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed is a Stand Alone as is Arcade Fire's Funeral (but only because it's too young to be influential). Albums like the Smiths' The Queen is Dead and Television's Marquee Moon are more strictly influential. Joy Division's Closer is one of those albums I would consider Influential but I wouldn't put it in the Stand Alone Great category. This is completely subjective, mind you, but Closer isn't one of those albums that I can appreciate on its own. It's not until I start to add up its massive influence and all of the great (and much more fun) music that came about because of it that I can feel comfortable saying it deserves its spot on the list.
Klinger: Every album that we have covered and will cover has its staunch defenders, and those people, even when they're being, shall we say, passionate in the comments section, have had that album affect them to their core (even when that album is Thriller, apparently). I can easily see how Closer would have spoken to someone in a very meaningful way, and they’d go out of their way to call it a Stand Alone Great album.
But maybe we can tweak your distinction a little. Sometimes when my wife and I are talking about movies, we'll make a distinction between a Great Film, which might be important and artistically impressive but not necessarily something you watch for fun, and a Great Movie, which work as perfect entertainment (some pictures, like say Casablanca or The Godfather, are both). Is it possible that we can extend that analogy to suggest that there’s a difference between a Great Album and a Great Record—and that most of the albums we've covered so far have been both?
I suspect that often the dividing line between a Great Record and a Great Album can come from the level of emotional honesty on display, and in this case the “display” is pretty close to literal. It's a raw nerve of a record, and that's apparent from the opening track. On "Atrocity Exhibition", Ian Curtis is practically daring us to take delight in the misery with which his group was becoming synonymous. Perhaps it's that defiance, more than the bleakness, that so many people respond to. Despite the sad end that came for Curtis, I think that Closer offers a greater message of strength than its status as a rock suicide note might suggest.
Mendelsohn: I suppose I'm being a bit too technical in my examination of this album's influence. Besides, the only people who would think Closer is a Great Record are those stupid goth kids with their eye shadow and their wrist scars. Go outside, get some sun, and stop moping around.
Aw, damn it. I'm doing it aren't I? And I probably shouldn't be making jokes about suicide either, all things considered. Depression is serious business. And you're right, it takes strength to fight it and strength to win out over it. Curtis didn't have the strength to finish the battle, but he poured a lot of that fight into this record. Track by track, it’s almost as if Curtis is weighing his options as he details his fight with epilepsy, his marital woes, and the pressure and isolation he feels; he even spends time in "Passover" pondering what the next set of lives might bring.
Klinger: Tread lightly, Mendelsohn. I really don't want to have to sit through another sensitivity training seminar. Closer is a Great Album. It's artistically impressive, and its legacy cannot be denied. The fact that it was released just two months after Curtis’ suicide obviously sealed the deal for critics when it came time to assess the group’s and the album’s legacies.
And for the right person in the right frame of mind it can become an important part of his or her life. But even its most ardent fans could concede that it's not the sort of thing you're going to put on when you’re having your coworkers over for a few drinks.(of course, more propulsive songs such as "A Means to an End" come close to moving the needle).
Mendelsohn: No one listens to Closer for fun. This album is where it is on the list because of the sum of its influence. Closer marks the birth of post-punk and New Wave and has pushed the direction of bands over three decades from U2 to Nine Inch Nails to Interpol. Remember the entire post-punk revival thing that took over for a minute last decade? Every band can be traced back to this record.
But why, man? If this album is such a downer, why won't people stop listening to it? What is it? Curtis' anguish? The driving, rhythmic pulse? What is it?
Don't answer that. I'm just musing rhetorically. I understand the appeal of this album. People love it for the same reason I watched Taxi Driver for three weeks straight when I was 20 years old. It seemed like the proper thing to do at the time.
Klinger: Sure, and once I heard this album, a few other things started to make sense, musically at least. Peter Hook's melodic bass playing was clearly an influence on R.E.M.'s Mike Mills. Bernard Sumner's skittering guitars and airy synths were obviously everywhere throughout the '80s. And drummer Stephen Morris' herky-jerky rhythms are a crucial step away from the simplicity of punk. Come to think of it, you can't tell me that David Byrne hadn't heard "The Eternal" when Talking Heads put together "The Overload" for Remain in Light.
Some of the credit for this goes to producer Martin Hannett, who polished the group's songs down to a metallic sheen. In the process, the distinct elements are so separated out that it almost starts to recall the dub that the kids back then were so taken with.
Mendelsohn: Hannett's contribution cannot be overlooked. The band wasn't exactly happy with the end result; they thought the album's sonic feel differed too much from how they played live. On stage they were much louder, much more abrasive, letting the punk origins shine through. But without Hannett's direction the bulk of ’80s rock music, and much that would follow in later decades, might sound completely different. But that's just rampant speculation; no better than asking if this album would have been half the success it was if Curtis' bandmates had listened to his lyrics and gotten him some help.
Klinger: Yikes, Mendelsohn. I’m nowhere near versed enough in Joy Division’s history to even allow myself to raise that question. I will say that the people standing closest are the ones most likely to hold out hope that things will improve. That can be even more pronounced in a band dynamic, a situation people enter into for a lot of different reasons. But given the passion that Joy Division inspires, I’m sure we’ll be hearing from plenty of people willing to go in cleats-up in defense of Closer.