I am in love with the city of Manchester. It has a lot to do with Manchester United, certainly, but my love affair with the great northern English city started before David Beckham made me a football fan. See, Manchester is the home of some of the greatest bands that ever existed. Most of these bands came after Joy Division, and sounded nothing like the dark, monotonous Ian Curtis and friends. Hell, after Curtis’ death, the band continued on a New Order and sounded nothing like Joy Division (but remained totally awesome while doing so).
Joy Division is one of my favourite bands of all time, much like Manchester is one of my favourite cities of all time. I get it. It’s an odd choice to love Manchester. Nothing on the surface seems lovable about it. But from the accent on down to Old Trafford, I find the city charming in its Northern, working class way. Joy Division, though, makes more sense. The band was lead by a suicidal epileptic who hanged himself. Judging on my pattern of empathizing with suicidal lunatics, I would naturally be drawn to Ian Curtis.
Listening to Joy Division is a trying experience sometimes. Curtis’ despair is so heavy, particularly over the last third of the album, that it’s hard to see anything but death a destruction. After the jarring experience of listening to their first album Unknown Pleasures, with its lighter shades and more guitar based sounds, I felt cleansed. Closer forced me to look deeper. The music has a disembodied quality, almost supernatural. It’s interesting to think that with or without Curtis, the band might have still ended up sounding exactly as they would as New Order. The underbelly hints at it. But then again, New Order never were this wrenching lyrically, and Joy Division never came up with anything as glorious as “True Faith”‘s synth magic.
The strength of the music was always in their rhythm section. Stephen Morris and Peter Hook created deep, barren chasms of steady, militaristic beats for Bernard Sumner and Curtis to twist their guitars over, and later the keyboards. Curtis’s then deep, clod baritone would intone over the top, creating sharp corners, sudden drops, and fatal crashes. The reverb is relentless, the sparseness of the bands arrangements is stark, and the music is unforgiving. This isn’t pop music. It’s a troubled soul unleashing his demons on the world with willing accomplices.
Troubled souls always find other troubled souls, which explains the enduring legacy of Curtis. He was among the indie world’s most tragic tales. Dead at 23, a young husband and father, about to tour America with his band. The idea that when life is going well means that the mind stops thinking dark and horrific things is a myth. The mind never stops. You just find something to cling on. And when you no longer can- well, it doesn’t end well. Curtis appeared to lose all faith in what mattered to him. It pours out of every song, and when you relate to songs as desperate as these, you sometimes feel the urge to run. Suicide, of course, is the cowards way out. Running away is not much better.
I of course, didn’t do either, but did what others wanted until I couldn’t any more. The complete collapse of everything sent me into a decade plus journey of trying to remember what it was about myself I even liked. The one true thing was always music. And when the desperation seeps into the cracks, I listen to this album. It reminds me that I am not the first, nor will I be the last. I will just be. Move along.