My interpretation of Joy Division’s 1980 single is most easily defined by the song’s dichotomy between Ian Curtis’ vocals and lyrical subject matter and the instrumental/beat, and the song’s distinct differences from the band’s previous work. Because of these changes, how is Curtis attempting to bridge the gap between the perceived “other” and his audience?
This was the band’s biggest hit, reaching thirteenth on the UK singles chart, somewhere they had never been close to before. This was partially aided by Curtis’ death, as the song was released post-mortem, playing into the idea of this as his final opus, aided in part by the “freak” disturbed genius trope. Playing even further into this idea was his wife’s, Deborah Curtis, choice to have the title of the song engraved into his headstone, cementing the idea of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as a capstone to the man’s life.
Background on Technology:
Producer Martin Hannett had an influential role in modernizing the sound of the band through his use of complex production choices and emphasis on technology. There is important detail placed on the production of the sound of Stephen Morris’ drums, an integral part to what distinguished Joy Division’s sound, “Hannett is said to have had him set up his kit on the roof. With engineer Chris Nagle, days would be spent placing and replacing mikes in toilets and corridors while feeding snare hits through a new generation of digital delay machinery. Recordings of bottles smashing and the Strawberry lift being slammed topped and tailed a paranoid soundscape evocative of midnight in the back streets of any Northern city. ” These two factors give context to the band’s choice to approach a poppier, electronic sound. This article also has a quote from bassist Peter Hook that strikes right at the heart of the importance of synthesizer/production, “We were one-dimensional, … Martin made the music three-dimensional.” Hannett’s influence also pushed them to use new synthesizer technology, something that they would incorporate in their music starting with Curtis’ diagnosis. The synthesizer’s sound was created by the members of the band. They learned how to program the synthesizers themselves so they could produce specific sounds. This keeps the DIY ethos of punk even when using advanced (for the time) production techniques (McCready).
Joy Division before this song wasn’t trying to become a pop sensation. Even though their songs remained within the rock conventions of tempo and backing beat, the prominence of Curtis’ strange vocal style and Morris’ inhuman, callous drums left the pop audience out in the cold. The danceability of early Joy Division songs was extremely limited due to these factors. Yet as explained earlier, Curtis wanted to take control of the narrative on his epilepsy, communicating his disability through dance. Because of Curtis’ desire to control his narrative, prior musical trends seem to be flipped for “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Similar to the 1979 live performances (Joy Division – She’s Lost Control (Live at Something Else Show)), the drums now appear very forward in the mix. The technology used to record the drums in earlier albums made them sound as if they had come from a machine, but the production used in this song sounds very organic. Each hit seems rushed as well, and along with the more organic timbre and syncopation gives the song a looser quality. Each drum beat is emphasized on the second and fourth beats, keeping with rock convention. Curtis’ voice blends further into the mix than it had in the past, soaked in so much reverb that less-produced versions of the song are almost unrecognizable. Martin Hannett’s production also aids the song’s transition towards pop sensibility. The main riff of the song is repeated often, both through the synthesizer and Curtis’ vocal melody. This riff involves melodic leaps from B to D and then from B back down to A. Leaps are usually associated with lightness, adding to the poppiness of the song. All of this adds to the danceability of the track and stands in stark contrast to almost all of the band’s previous work barring half of their album Closer.
The lyrical content of the song contrasts with the light and danceable tone. Even though Curtis has achieved rock auteur status (the same status his heroes achieved) he is still dealing with the same issues he has had since before the band started, even adding problems such as his disability to his list of grievances (Middles). This helps the listener connect with Curtis’ condition more than usual, introducing Curtis’ problems not abstractly or through an ironic veil. This tension is even represented in the melody through the tension created by the melody’s first three notes. These long notes don’t advance the melody but keep the listener in waiting, will it light and airy or heavy and foreboding? These two elements play off each other, turning the normal lens of “otherness” that other star experience and helping the audience and listener experience and empathize with said “other”.