One of the things I love most about I’ll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence is Bill F-W’s inclusion of several artists who wouldn’t normally be associated with the more ‘spiritual’ side of pop. Tricky, the Stooges, Eminem, and others. In the following extract, from the chapter entitled “The Great Wrong Place in Which We Live”, Bill writes about the music of Joy Division. (It’s followed in the book by a knockout piece on New Order.)
The music of England’s Joy Division is among the gloomiest and most influential of the post-punk era, anticipating everything from industrial noise and dance-oriented rock to death metal and grunge. The group’s dystopian brooding might not be as transgressive as the digital barrages of Nine Inch Nails, or as suffocating as the thrumming beatdown of Tricky, yet if anything, Joy Division’s unremitting urban Gothic is darker than either, and a precursor to both. The band issued only a handful of singles, an EP, and a pair of bracingly grim LPs during its three years together. This body of work turned on the doomed romanticism of its lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, a depressive soul who suffered from epilepsy and ultimately hanged himself, presumably over his failing marriage, just as Joy Division was on the verge of achieving wider acclaim. It would be a mistake, though, to attribute the band’s doleful, ominous droning solely to Curtis’s emotional malaise. To do so would not only reduce the group’s music to personal psychology, it would divorce it from the larger economic and cultural morass from which it emerged. “Coming from the industrial desolation of Manchester,” wrote Steven Grant in the first edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide, “Joy Division expressed, in uncompromising terms, the angst of the great wrong place in which we live.”
Personal and societal miseries were linked inextricably in Joy Division’s universe, each informing and illuminating the other and contributing to a vision of the world as a cruel, chaotic place in which isolated individuals entertained scant hope of transcendence. The name Joy Division itself—a ghastly phrase that the Nazis used to describe the female prisoners whom they forced to work as prostitutes in the death camps—conjures so bleak and dehumanizing a picture as to suggest that Curtis’s resignation and despair just might qualify as nihilism. Allusions to fascism and totalitarianism crop up elsewhere in the group’s music and iconography, yet as the critic Mikal Gilmore has suggested, the band’s name also could be giving voice to the conviction “that no horror, no matter how terrible, is unendurable. Maybe that sounds as joyless and morose as everything else about Joy Division’s music, but it shouldn’t. In this case, it’s nothing less than a surpassing testament to the life force itself.”
This is not to say that the negation that reverberates throughout Joy Division’s monuments to isolation and estrangement—throbbing “No’s” to intimacy, trust, safety, and perhaps redemption itself—is not so intense at times as to be overwhelming. Abandoning himself to the free-falling rush of “Disorder,” the opening track on 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, Curtis sings of things being all but hopelessly out of hand. To the menacing lurch of the song that comes after it, he paints one forbidding scene after another, only to howl, “Where will it end?” in an aggrieved monotone. “I don’t care anymore / I’ve lost the will to want more,” Curtis concedes to the flogging beats of “Insight,” before adding, “I’m not afraid anymore / I keep my eyes on the door.” An oblivion-like din of squalling guitar and synthesizer closes the track, suggesting that the door for which he watches, and the insight to which he aspires, is death, likely as not by his own hand.
Monolithic titles like “Wilderness,” “Interzone,” and “Shadowplay” chart the desolate spiritual and emotional terrain of Unknown Pleasures, evoking a subterranean region in which souls are adrift, or are lost or in limbo, and never benignly so. Martin Hannett’s glacial production heightens this sense of being cut off and in danger, his stark settings clarifying Bernard Albrecht’s scraping guitar figures, Peter Cook’s cascading bass lines, and Stephen Morris’s scourge-like, often grooveless drumming to chilling, though gripping effect. The sound of glass shattering or the occasional siren going off only makes the perils portended by the music seem that much more real.
Things take an even more forbidding turn on Closer, Joy Division’s second and final album. The ruinous proceedings begin with “Atrocity Exhibition,” a macabre sideshow named after J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novel about the dissolution of the planet earth. “This is the way, step inside,” Curtis beckons, herding a crowd of spectators into an asylum to gawk at a man who is being tortured. “You’ll see the horrors of a faraway place / Meet the architects of law face to face,” he goes on, hawking the carnage over noxious guitars and tribal drumming, before adding, “Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be.” As Morris’s heart-of-darkness beat mounts, it is clear that the mayhem that Curtis promises is much closer to home than advertised, and that it has been wrought not by alien hands but by those within the sound of his voice.
This air of apocalypse pervades all of Closer, where dogs and vultures feed on carcasses that symbolize decaying relationships, where swarms of screeching guitar noise evoke clouds of locust, and where dirge-like cadences invariably grind to a lifeless halt. “It all falls apart after it’s touched,” Curtis utters ominously to the inexorable march of one track. In another he proclaims, “The present is well out of hand,” and, amid the relentless pounding of “Twenty Four Hours,” he moans, “Just for one moment / I thought I’d found my way / Destiny unfolded / I watched it slip away.” “Decades,” the dissipated, almost static track that closes the album, evokes Curtis’s interminable sentence in this moral and spiritual gulag.
“Why bother…with music so seemingly dead-end and depressing?” Mikal Gilmore asked, writing in Rolling Stone during the early post-punk era. Gilmore’s is a valid question, and one that applies not just to the music of Joy Division, but to the work of any artist who conveys negation in uncompromising and often repugnant terms. “Maybe,” Gilmore went on, “because in the midst of a movement overrun by studied nihilism and faddish despair it is somehow affecting to hear someone whose convictions range beyond mere truisms. Maybe because Ian Curtis’ descent into despair leaves us with a deeper feeling of our own frailty.”
These intimations of a shared experience, and the promise of community, no matter how broken, that they hold are not the only salutary by-products of Curtis’s despair. His struggle also witnesses to the dangers of false claims to transcendence—to the lure of easy paths out of the pit—as well as to the persistence of a desire for something beyond degradation and despondency. At one point Gilmore even asserted that the group’s most transporting music “seemed almost spirited enough to dispel the gloom it so doggedly invoked,” only to back off that claim and conclude that “Joy Division never really aspire to transcendence.” And yet, as lines like “I tried to get to you” and “I was a fool to ask for so much” attest, it is not so much that Curtis and the rest of the band do not express an urge for transcendence. It is more that their striving for it has been eclipsed, a frustration, Curtis’s suicide notwithstanding, that does not make their hunger for release less real.
Joy Division’s recordings often confirm as much. From the rocket propulsion of “Interzone” to the ecstatic chants in “Transmission” of “Dance, dance, dance to the radio,” the band’s music frequently conveys a qualified, if gallows-bred, sort of uplift. Just the “expression of [these] feelings is a victory over obliteration,” wrote Evelyn McDonnell in 1995. “Joy Division aspired to heaven even when trapped in hell,” she went on, and nowhere is this more evident than in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band’s biggest and final single. Issued just two months before Curtis hanged himself in 1980, the record might lament love’s inevitable dissolution, but its churning dance rhythms and intoxicating, if dissonant, synthesizer lines bespeak transcendence in spite of themselves, seeming, as McDonnell wrote, “to hurl the burden conveyed by Curtis’ voice and lyrics heavenward.” Even at its most dour, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” bears witness to an aspiration, however much it might be thwarted, that endures as much in Curtis’s haunted droning as it does in the record’s indomitable grooves.