A Spiritual Review: Joy Division

Writing about faith and doubt and religion when it comes to the iconic band Joy division is surprisingly difficult. The lucky few who know the band with its tragic music and the equally tragic story will have in mind the suicide of the lead singer Ian Curtis. At least we can say this: the tragedy was real and it can still be felt in the encounter of the music and lyrics.

The Eternal does not seem to be about God but has a clear religious quality:

“Procession moves on, the shouting is over, Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone.”

Ian Curtis speaks the same imagery as Robert Smith of The Cure in Lament

“Talking aloud as they sit round their tables, Scattering flowers washed down by the rain. Stood by the gate at the foot of the garden, Watching them pass like clouds in the sky…”

It sounds like British and French romantic poetry and brings us back to the tragic and Gothic dilemma of Alfred de Musset (in Hope in God).

Decades is especially moving song, a dirge to and for every lost soul. There is something deliberate about this tragedy: “We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber, Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in…” Sadly, Ian never found the ritual to replace the fear…

In Passover, Ian finally mentions God by name in a song that can be read like a prayer to the heavenly parent; but Ian returns to his own self, his own crisis to wonder what will come next.

Facing the failure of human love, “As desperation takes hold,” love Will tear us apart is the band’s most enduring song. The artwork is definitely Gothic. Ian Curtis offers a bleak description of reality, as in heart and soul, “An abyss that laughs at creation, A circus complete with all fools.”

The flip side of this gloom is that every song expresses the tension between implosion and explosion; there is a reaching out to escape the inner black hole, even if it has to be in the next life (from Ceremony):

Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time,

Avenues all lined with trees,

Picture me and then you start watching,

Watching forever, forever,

Watching love grow, forever,

Letting me know, forever.

Joy Division is, as The Cure, the ultimate antidote to the superficial glamour of the 1980s (e.g. Duran Duran) which has endured many forms. Sadly, the outer violence of the 1970s turned inward and there was nothing offered or within reach to escape isolation and disorder. There is very little faith in Joy Division, and even the true faith of new order is as minimal as it gets. Hope however can be found in a recent interview by bass player Peter Hook:

I do believe in a higher power. As an alcoholic, I realised there was something that can make you act badly, or act well. I think I lost myself because something else was controlling me. As far as religion goes, I’m hedging my bets. My wife is religious, and she often asks me to come with her to church, which I do on special occasions.