Archive for December 2010
“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a 30-year-old song by the British post-punk band Joy Division, is in the air. Or, at least, it’s in my air. Yesterday a colleague posted a video of it to his Facebook page. Last week a friend sent me a clip of a live version of Arcade Fire and U2 attacking the song. Peter Hook, the bass player on the original, is touring with a new band that’s playing pretty much all Joy Division songs. (I contributed, too, with this silly excuse for a post on BoingBoing back in October.) And this morning I happened to be listening to yet another version of the song while I checked on the news and learned that one of Bernie Madoff’s sons just killed himself the same way Joy Division singer Ian Curtis did. Not quite a trend, I know, and the dots connect only in my idiosyncratic head, but everyone’s head is idiosyncratic and isn’t that what blogs are for sharing anyway?
Why does this song have such a hold? I don’t cherish most Joy Division songs the way I do much of the 1980s work of New Order, the smart, austere band that emerged out of Joy Division after Curtis hung himself. Although drenched in punk, much of Joy Division’s work was grandly overdramatic (think Jim Morrison with a better rhythm section), but on “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band transcends pretty much every limitation. Sure, it picks up added weight when we learn what Curtis did to himself while love was tearing him apart, but the song doesn’t need any rock’n'roll myth to burn into your memory. The lyrics are pretty clear: routines bite hard, ambitions are low, resentment rides high, emotions won’t grow, and all that happens before the first verse is over. By the time the song reaches its peak — Curtis singing “Desperation takes hold” with corrosive resignation — you’re so far into the song that you don’t even notice its grip tightening around you.
Musically, the record is that rare of-the-moment British pop song from 1980 that doesn’t sound dated. The song breaks open with a jagged bass line, an ethereal synthesizer both soars over Curtis’s singing and mocks it, and drummer Steve Morris introduces that astounding snare-shot overdrive move that every ’80s band, from the Pretenders to Modern English, U2 to the 10,000 bands that tried to be U2, picked up on, eventually turning it into a cliche, almost as bad as Auto-Tune is nowadays. But on “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the innovation is fresh. The whole damn song is. It’s a tale of romantic disintegration put across with an energy that makes something new out of the singer’s hopelessness. Thirty years later, there’s still nothing like it.