Joy Division was a by-the-book canonical act. They released two incredibly self-contained albums, sounded like no one had, influenced everybody in their field from the day they debuted, and their lead singer committed suicide two months before their second LP’s release. Even if they had been Nazi sympathizers, it would have been hard to keep them from quickly becoming saints in the canon of alternative and indie rock music.
I am, of course, exaggerating, but the music crit world’s love for Joy Division is unwavering. Retrospectives routinely take it as read that everyone already agrees about the band’s perfection. To neophytes this can be frustrating. After all, they don’t sound particularly inviting: seemingly tone-deaf singing, spare, often awkward instrumentals, and a high-minded philosophical ego that could put Kanye West to shame. When I first started listening to the band, I hated them. I assumed that all of these fans had simply been deluded by the idea and the story, rather than this purposefully clunky music that the band clearly didn’t really want people to like.
Closer is the album that changed my mind. While Joy Division have traveled to some new, rather uninviting places, they have done so with the rock lexicon in tow. You just have to follow closely behind them. “A Means to an End” is built on a crushing, locomotive rhythm, but it ends with a guitar solo that might as well be on the Top Gun soundtrack. On “Isolation”, singer Ian Curtis sounds like he’s slowly being turned into a robot, but it uses synths that you are just as likely to hear on Prince’s Dirty Mind. Even more than their first album, Unknown Pleasures, Closer shows the band finding hooks everywhere, often in the most unexpected sounds and rhythms.
The band’s broad definition of catchy allows them to push even deeper into traditionally untouched sonic territory, creating a sky high risk-reward equation and somehow always landing on the “reward” side. Closer presents some of the starkest aesthetic contrasts in pop music history, pitting classical beauty against unholy ugliness at almost every turn. This allows the band to more completely represent some very unpleasant but very real emotions, motifs that other solemn artists have often been too squeamish to explore.
As you may have noticed, the sound of the album is very difficult to describe. One has to resort to metaphorical H.P. Lovecraft monsters to represent its terrible strangeness. Let me put it this way: with Closer, Joy Division collected the most complete collection of sounds in rock history that are guaranteed to make the listener consider his or her own innate loneliness. If that sounds appealing to you, please listen.