If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listening to JD now, you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channelling our present, their future.
Joy Division’s back catalogue is immaculately concise. They recorded only two studio LPs, Unknown Pleasures in 1979 and Closer a year later – both re-issued in 2007, alongside the posthumous Still.
For Joy Division, post-punk meant living in the No Future that the Pistols had announced. If you could call it living… Ian Curtis’ voice – from the very start terrifying in its fatalism, in its acceptance of the worst – sounds like the voice of man who is already dead, or who has entered an appalling state of suspended animation, death-within-life. It sounds preternaturally ancient; a voice that cannot be sourced back to any living being, still less to a young man barely in his twenties.
Although they were recorded at a time of major historical rupture – at the very moment when the certainties of the post-war consensus were giving way to the perpetual precariousness of a post-Fordist system prey to the vagaries of the so-called free market, a situation accelerated in Britain by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 – Joy Division’s songs were devoid of specific reference to geopolitical events. They surveyed History as if from a great distance, seeing only atrocity and dejection, but lacking ‘the will to want more’. Whereas rock singers had usually made – impossible – demands on the world, Curtis, ‘the weight on his shoulders’, came across as almost dispassionate in his disconsolation, coldly calm in his infinite resignation.
Joy Division may not have written about contemporary events, but their traumatic effect is registered everywhere in the group’s sound. Even Martin Hannett’s epochal, spectral production suggests the derelict factories and litter-strewn ex-public spaces of a decommissioned industrial economy. Immersed in History, but haunted, as was all of post-punk, by its possibly imminent termination in nuclear war, Curtis gave voice – a dread-ful, dread-filled voice – to a sense of despair that is now ubiquitous but unspoken.
A decade after Curtis committed suicide in 1980, History did end, but not in a way that the post-punks had feared. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the eighties, the neo-liberal cheerleaders of capitalism felt able to proclaim that History had reached its terminus with the apparent triumph of global Capital. Some theorists have convincingly correlated the rise of consumer capitalism with the incestuous self-referencing of postmodern retro-culture. Listening to Joy Division in 2009, it is hard not to hear them as a grim anticipation of the wasteland of post-modernity from the perspective of pop’s last modernist phase. JD’s heirs are not grave robbing copyists like the Editors but acts capable of diagnosing the postmodern sickness whilst being debilitated by it: the pathologically demotivated enervation of early Dizzee Rascal, the plaintive post-rave of Burial, the solemn nihilism of Xasthur…