Joy Division

I like Joy Division. They are, in fact, my favorite band. They’re not the easiest to listen to or the most prolific but they’re quality.

Bred from the ferocity of late 70s punk, Joy Division embraced the energy and passion of the era but pushed it in new directions, upping the artistry and experimentalism and becoming one of the forerunners of the “post-punk” movement. The four members of the band, Ian Curtis (vocals), Bernard Albrecht (guitar), Peter Hook (bass) and Stephen Morris (percussion) were aided, or possibly forced, in this direction by their legendary and rather brilliant producer Martin Hannett, who channeled their music into discordant soundscapes that matched the emotion and despair of Curtis’s bleak lyrics. Hooks played his bass as if he were on lead guitar, supplementing and enhancing Albrecht’s guitar lines. And Morris’s drums were intense, primal even: listen to “Twenty-Four Hours” from Closer. The drums are just nearly off-beat, creating an urgent but disorienting, almost frightening sound.

In both music and production this band are genius. But I don’t want to be disingenuous. Joy Division were special because of Ian Curtis.

He certainly didn’t have the pleasantest voice; often off-tune, he nevertheless performed his songs with a rawness and passion that made his vocal range moot. Check out his delivery toward the end of “Transmission”: hearing him sing “And we can DAAANCE” brings chills to the spine.

But it’s not Curtis’ passion or even his singing which makes Joy Division so personal, so essential. It’s his despair.

Curtis managed to convey a palpable sense of isolation without self pity or maudlinism; some of his most heartbreaking lyrics rely merely on subtext. For example,  “Atmosphere”: “People like you find it easy, Naked to see, walking on air, Hunting by the rivers through the streets every corner, Abandoned too soon, set down with due care, Don’t walk away in silence, Don’t walk away.” It’s recognition of one’s self as different, as somehow difficult and the turmoil of that difficulty combined with a hopeless need to not be alone. It would be hard to find another song that encapsulates isolation so succinctly.

Isolation, of course, is different from loneliness, which is a more common theme in pop; isolation’s not just feeling alone but feeling like an entirely different species from everyone else. In isolation you’re alone and there’s little hope of being anything but. It’s the profound horror of difference, of remoteness, of existential angst.

Curtis, of course, killed himself at age 23 shortly before Joy Division’s final studio album, Closer, was released. It’s difficult not to interpret Closer as an extended suicide note. It’s brilliant and groundbreaking but it’s bleak as hell and even I can only listen to it when I’m in a really black mood. Still, the album moves me like no other music ever has. It has become essential to me: utterly personal.

I’m afraid this makes me a vampire.

The truth is, Ian Curtis’ isolation and despair help ameliorate my own. And so what I find attractive about Joy Division may be what, in essence, killed a man. A boy really. I worry I’m feeding on the despair and depression of a person who was ill—he was plagued by both serious epilepsy and (likely) mental illness.

Of course, my reasons for liking a piece of music are completely separate to how that music was produced. If I liked Joy Division just for the guitar or the bass it wouldn’t save Ian Curtis’s life.  Do our motives actually matter or do only our actions? If I changed places with Curtis, would I want people to listen to my music regardless of why, and would I be unhappy if someone were listening just because of the passion I put into it? Would what I thought even matter? Where do the production of and experience of a piece of art meet and where do they end?

I think sometimes I think too much. I also think that maybe art is produced to be appreciated regardless of why, and that art, to some extent can, or even must, be divorced from its creator. Maybe it doesn’t matter why art is appreciated as long as it’s appreciated. Maybe art is about communication, and once that communication is sent it belongs as much to the receiver as it does to the sender.

Maybe sometimes it’s ok to be a bit of a vampire.


~ by kellly333 on April 26, 2011.

One Response to “Joy Division”

  1. I think that you can truly have a relationship with art or a work of art. And that relationship develops and changes over time.

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