Joy Division's second and last studio album; for basics, see Gritchka above. Joy Division made very dark, unhappy music. I've heard that the so-called "goths" like to claim that it's got something to do with them, but they're kidding themselves: Joy Division wasn't a costume party. It wasn't cheap theater, "hey, look at me!", etc. They weren't striking a dramatic pose to freak Mom out.
The original vinyl release had a matte-finish sleeve and innersleeve, and nothing to indicate which side was side A and which was side B except for the etching on the vinyl itself around the label ("FACTUS 6A" on one side, "FACTUS 6B" on the other; the B side has the words "OLD BLUE"1 etched there also, and on both sides there's weird, crude little cartoon bird or lizard face). The tracks aren't listed on the label, just the name of the band and of the album.
This is all true of the Factory US copy that I have, but I understand that it was done the same way in the UK. The packaging was designed by Peter Saville, who designed almost everything that Factory did for many years (including special stationery in honor of a lawsuit, which had its own Factory catalog number) (really!). As of 2001, Saville is still designing packaging for New Order, the band formed by Joy Division's surviving members after Ian's necktie party.
Later on, they started selling copies with regular glossy cardboard sleeves, and for many years now in the US it hasn't been available in any format without a Qwest logo and a damned UPC barcode thing.
I guess I lucked out.
Closer was produced by Martin Hannett, who had produced Joy Division's previous releases on Factory (an album, Unknown Pleasures a single, "Transmission", and some odds'n'ends on samplers and whatnot). He produced two other singles for Joy Division2, and stuck around to produce New Order's first single ("Ceremony") and album (Movement). They parted ways due to creative differences after that. He's dead now.
Martin Hannett did a good job for a change, too: Unknown Pleasures is a mess. It's all reverb. The drums are these tinny little things floating... somewhere. Listen to a good live version of "New Dawn Fades" (I don't believe I've ever heard a bad one) and then go back to UP again: Holy Toledo! What a shame. That song should loom over you. It's a great and terrible thing. Hannet's not the only culprit: The drummer does those busy, hyperactive, motion-killing drum fills that were so popular in England in the late 1970s, the ones that never worked for anybody but the Buzzcocks. Ah, fashion. It's a bummer -- but on bootlegs, with the silly fills and without the reverb, the song works. MARTIN HANNETT, I ACCUSE YOU!
It's as if Hannett had all these toys and he didn't know what he wanted to do with them. It's not rare for people to make those mistakes; it's just rare for them to be released. Excessive reverb doesn't make a record sound big. It just sounds like the band's lost in a Zeppelin hangar. Maybe that expresses "alienation" or some bullshit, but it sounds like crap.
On Closer, Hannett didn't go overboard. The sound is big: It's more of a real room sound. The drums sound like drums, especially on "Atrocity Exhibition" where they really need to. Oh, hell, that whole song is just beautifully recorded. It's a delight. It's all done with such a light touch except for the guitar. The guitar sounds like a flock of crocodiles in Hell. It's cool: The guitar in that song ought to sound like that. It's the Right Thing.
Twenty years on, this album doesn't seem like quite the revolutionary, Year-Zero reinvention of music that I thought it was in 1982. It's close, though. It's a real advance over Unknown Pleasures in a lot of ways: It's more rhythmically adventurous, and harmonically it ranges from "a bit weird" all the way out to genuinely alien. The guitar was laying out more, too, and the bass was upfront and riffing more. They really jettisoned the whole conventional relationship between those two instruments, and especially between the bass and the chord progression. Songs have chord progressions by definition, I guess, but with most of these songs nobody's trying to play one.
The remarkable thing is not so much that it doesn't sound like anything else out there, but that it works. It's easy to do something nobody's doing: Those Knitting Factory con artists in New York have been doing it for years. The trick is making it better, too.
Then, of course, they'll be going along wonderfully, and Morris will suddenly freak out and throw in one of those hyperactive fills and spoil everything. He makes other mistakes, too: Throughout most of "Decades", the groove is badly spavined3. It just doesn't work. You can see what they were trying to do with it: It's supposed to be stately, but it lurches, up until about 4:00 into the song, where the sand-block thing drops out and the whole thing snaps into place. Four minutes is a long time to wait. Sometimes they slip up and you remember that they really hadn't been playing their instruments for very long.
Speaking of "Decades", there's also the synthesizer thing: Of nine songs, four are full of synthesizers. For a band that started out two years earlier thinking it wanted to be the Sex Pistols, that's quite a switch (hell, "The Eternal"'s got a piano on it!). Some of it is even pretty. From the shattered alien landscapes of "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Colony" to the lovely melancholy of "The Eternal" and "Decades" is quite a trip for one album.
Oh, but now we get to the lyrics. Joy Division's singer was a guy named Ian Curtis. He was very unhappy and he was very young, and we all know that's a bad mix. Sometimes he just looks you in the eye and talks about it, and he does okay: "I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through / I'm ashamed of the person I am." ("Isolation") The problem is that he usually tries to be "poetic". Oh, dear: "Try to cry out in the heat of the moment / possessed by a fury that burns from inside." ("The Eternal") That's drivel, Ian. I'm sorry, but it's just shameful.
It's a flawed record. There are some big flaws, and there are small flaws too, little awkward moments here and there. So what? Two decades along, Closer still packs a hell of a wallop, and it still doesn't sound like anything else. It doesn't sound dated, either. That's what they were aiming for, and they nailed it.
1They did that inner-groove-etching thing a lot, both as Joy Division and later as New Order. It was always great fun, back before New Order lost it in the mid-1980s, to buy a new NO record: I'd tear the shrink-wrap off in the car, pull the record out, and look for the little message. That's all been lost now, with CDs.
2"Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart". I can't remember now whether "Atmosphere" was before Closer, or after.
3Morris was always stiff more often than not. He's still stiff, stiff as a board. New Order grooves better when they use drum machines than when the drummer plays. How depressing is that?! (Exceptions include "Atrocity Exhibition" and the the wonderfully loose, graceful A-side version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart". Moving on into New Order days, "Murder" works like a charm, "Ceremony", and those rack tom-intensive songs on Movement: "The Him" and "Doubts Even Here".)