Love Will Tear Us Apart: Joy Division’s ‘Closer’ at 40

The life and death of an album that defined and abruptly ended an era.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Joy Division’s second and final studio album, Closer.

Recorded just a year after their previous album, the acclaimed and now iconic Unknown Pleasures, the band was afforded a bigger budget and plenty of creative momentum going into the studio. Despite a somewhat contentious relationship with producer Martin Hannett, the band showed incredible growth and inspiration, with most of the songs recorded live.

But even as things were looking up for Joy Division, they had become privately dire for singer Ian Curtis, who—following struggles with epilepsy, depression and love—hanged himself just months before Closer hit stores. 

Before it could even be heard, the album was transformed into a musical obituary for the brilliant but troubled young frontman, as solidified by the album title and  Peter Saville’s prophetic cover art featuring a photo of a tomb. 

For Joy Division fans, Closer is a masterpiece; a seminal work of post-punk perfection. But for the band, it was an album that was nothing like they expected, even before being inextricably linked with Curtis’ death. 

“The band sort of grew into a different band,” Peter Hook says in Jon Savage’s 2019 book, This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else. “I had so many problems with it when I first heard it. And also [drummer Stephen] Morris being afraid of it being a total disaster. Especially after the death of Ian the band struggled even more and did not even want to listen to the album when it came out.” 

It took many years for the band to be ready to listen to Closer again, but they all came to agree that it’s an incredible effort in retrospect. Hook has even called it his favorite album ever.

Furthermore, Closer has become a cornerstone of rock history; a dark, beautiful opus that gives the listener a visceral look into Ian Curtis’ tragic mind.

Maybe that’s the reason why so many fans feel a deep connection to Closer. As uncomfortable as the songs can make you feel, their raw vulnerability makes them therapeutic. And in a sort of ironic poetry, multiple generations have found community from latching onto Curtis’ relatable feelings of emptiness and isolation.

I sometimes wonder what a third Joy Division album would have sounded like. How would this child of its time have evolved in the 1980s? Would Joy Division still have become New Order if Ian had been around. Or would they have transformed into something else entirely?

Although it doesn’t appear on Closer itself, the band’s biggest hit would come in the form of a non-album single released just weeks before it. I think the song title, which sums up the life and Joy Division and Ian Curtis, speaks for itself: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”