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Best Ian Curtis Lyrics: 10 Unforgettable Expressions Of Heart And Soul
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Best Ian Curtis Lyrics: 10 Unforgettable Expressions Of Heart And Soul

With their arresting imagery and soul-bearing honesty, the best Ian Curtis lyrics have cemented the Joy Division singer’s place in history.

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Often imitated, but never bettered, Joy Division’s two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, have long since set the band’s legend in stone. However, while this small, yet vital body of work charts their sonic progression from have-a-go punk wannabes to iconic post-punk league-leaders, their songs wouldn’t have the same impact without either Ian Curtis’ charismatic baritone or his estimable lyrics. Indeed, the best Ian Curtis lyrics boast a gravitas rarely observed in rock’n’roll.

While Curtis’ fondness for groundbreaking musical artists such as Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle is well-documented, less well known is his innate love of the broader literary spectrum which fuelled his trajectory as he morphed into of rock’s most singular lyricists. Those closest to him frequently refer to Curtis’ love of language. In his memoir, Record Play Pause, Stephen Morris wrote, “We were very lucky in having someone [like Ian] who not only wanted to be the singer, but also had the intelligence to write meaningful words,” while in a 2014 interview with The Observer, Curtis’ widow, Deborah, said, “Words meant such a lot to Ian – if he put a record on, we’d have to listen to absolutely everything. He used to talk about what the lyrics meant and the story behind them. He didn’t like songs that didn’t mean anything.”

Dedicated to his art, Ian Curtis was a prolific writer and, between 1977 and his tragic suicide in May 1980, he wrote reams of meaningful words, many of which still have the power to fascinate. In celebration of his immense talent, we pore over his back pages to select the ten best Ian Curtis lyrics.

Listen to the best of Joy Division here, and check out our ten best Ian Curtis lyrics, below.

10: No Love Lost

Ian Curtis was an avid reader throughout his short life, so it’s no surprise to discover Joy Division took their name from a book, The House Of Dolls, by Ka-Tzetnik (real name Yehiel Feiner). Despite its harrowing subject matter (concentration camps established by Hitler’s Nazis during World War II), the book’s paperback edition sold millions of copies, and Curtis even read a short passage from it during No Love Lost, the best track from Joy Division’s debut EP, An Ideal For Living. More importantly, while his group – still calling themselves Warsaw when the EP was recorded – were formulating their style at this stage, lines such as “To never see you show your age/To watch until the beauty fades” revealed that the best Ian Curtis lyrics would prove him to be a peerless wordsmith.

9: The Drawback

Now available on a semi-official basis as Warsaw, the putative album Joy Division recorded for RCA Records in the spring of 1978 – under the auspices of Northern soul DJ Richard Searling – pleased neither band nor production team. However, while these aborted sessions reveal that Joy Division needed future producer Martin Hannett’s vision to shape them, they also demonstrated that their then 21-year-old frontman was rapidly maturing as a writer. The record’s opening cut, the fizzy, Buzzcocks-esque The Drawback, might have been sonically disposable, but Curtis’ resonant lyric (“Seen the troubles and the evils of this world/I’ve seen the stretches between godliness and sin”) suggests it was written by a man with a much older head on his shoulders.

8: Interzone

One of the few positives from the RCA sessions was that the label encouraged Joy Division to try covering NF Porter’s Northern soul classic, Keep On Keepin’ On. Their attempt failed, but the group adapted the song’s riff for the self-penned Interzone, one of the many highlights on their debut album, Unknown Pleasures. Reflecting Ian Curtis’ love of science-fiction – and dystopian literature in general – the lyric placed dispossessed youth, akin to those in William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, in decaying Mancunian landscapes (“In a group, all forgotten youth/Are turned on to a knife-edge view”). One of the best Ian Curtis lyrics, the visceral language perfectly matched the grinding, Stooges-esque aggression of the music.

7: Candidate

Martin Hannett felt Joy Division were light on material when they started recording Unknown Pleasures, and he encouraged them to write some new songs from scratch in the studio. Though unaccustomed to such a spontaneous method of working, the band embraced the idea and worked up several excellent new tracks. The sparsest (and by some way the eeriest) of these, Candidate was built almost exclusively upon bass and drums, and it provoked a compelling, Kafka-esque Curtis lyric (“It’s just second nature, it’s what we’ve been shown/We’re living by your rules, that’s all that we know”) concerning an individual trapped by forces beyond their control.

6: Colony

At least superficially, Closer highlight Colony also took its lead from Franz Kafka, with the title referencing the German author’s short story In The Penal Colony. In the same way that story’s protagonist seems numbed by the horrors of the events he witnesses, Curtis’ narrative is also initially related with detachment, and its superb opening lines (“A cry for help, a hint of anaesthesia/The sound of broken homes, we used to always meet here”) are relayed with an economy worthy of British novelist Graham Greene. One of the earliest tracks worked up for Closer, Colony was first played live during the summer of 1979. The more aggressive John Peel session version from November that year included several lines (“I watched all hell break loose, confined and unprepared”) that Curtis later replaced as he honed the lyric.

5: Wilderness

The best Ian Curtis lyrics often featured references to a dystopian society, but a proliferation of religious imagery also bled into some of his most powerful lines, as on Colony (“God in his wisdom took you by the hand”) and The Eternal (“A burden to keep through their inner communion”). Curtis had a more concentrated pop at organised religion on Unknown Pleasures’ Wilderness, where he beamed in reports like a seer (“I travelled far and wide through many different times”) and vividly reported atrocities instigated by religious crusades through the ages (“What did you see there?/The blood of Christ on their skins”).

4: Twenty Four Hours

As we now know all too well, the anguish Ian Curtis expressed in many of Closer’s greatest songs was very real. His attempts to keep an extra-marital affair separate from his home life with his wife and infant daughter only added to the problems created by his worsening epilepsy and the pressure he felt fronting one of the hottest young bands of the late 70s. Curtis directly confronted this dilemma on Passover (“This is the crisis I knew had to come”), but laid his soul bare on Closer’s most quixotic-sounding track, Twenty Four Hours.

Curtis’ uncertainties are matched by the majestic rush of the song’s verses and the melancholic dropdowns. In retrospect, it’s astonishing that such a tormented state of mind could result in one of the best Ian Curtis lyrics, with lines such as “So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride/What once was innocence, turned on its side” being shot through with a poetic beauty that’s almost Pre-Raphaelite in its execution.

3: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Few would argue that Joy Division’s signature hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart, is a thing of glacial beauty, yet while Curtis’ lyric has been remorselessly picked over by fans and critics, that’s done little to diminish the song’s power. More direct than most Joy Division songs in terms of its defined, radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse structure, Love Will Tear Us Apart is usually viewed as a break-up song – or at least a commentary on the precarious state of Curtis’ marriage. Yet while his finely-wrought lyric is steeped in sadness and alienation (“Why is the bedroom so cold?/You’ve turned away on your side”), the line “There’s still this appeal that we’ve kept through our lives” suggests that some intimacy and warmth may remain after all.

As Jon Savage’s So This Is Permanence also reveals, earlier drafts of the song feature Curtis playing with variations such as “your bedroom, this bedroom, the bedroom”, so whether the song really addressed the singer’s own life remains unclear. As Deborah Curtis told The Guardian, “I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is reality.”

2: Heart And Soul

In Touching From A Distance, Deborah Curtis said of Closer, “While [Ian] lived his lyrics were equivocal, but with hindsight all was disclosed when it was too late for anything to be done. Such a sensitive composition could not have happened by accident.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more sensitive – and erudite – commentary on one’s impending self-destruction than the remarkable Heart And Soul. Sonically, one of Joy Division’s most forward-looking compositions, but also featuring one of the best Ian Curtis lyrics, the song’s finest lines (“An abyss that laughs at creation/A circus complete with all fools/Foundations that lasted the ages/Then ripped apart at their roots”) simply leap off the page. With knowledge of imminent events, however, it’s hard not to be shocked by the clarity Curtis invests in the lines “Existence, well what does it matter?” and “The past is now part of my future”.

1: Atrocity Exhibition

Along with William Burroughs, Ian Curtis read JG Ballard voraciously, with several of the English author’s most controversial post-apocalyptic novels, such as High-Rise and Crash, among his favourite titles. Curtis also purloined the title of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition for Closer’s opening song, though he actually wrote it long before he read the book, feeling that the title fitted with the idea of the lyrics, which are, indeed, pivotal – and arguably the best Ian Curtis lyrics of all time.

Though sometimes brutal, much of the Atrocity Exhibition’s imagery (“See mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen”; “In arenas he kills for a prize, wins a minute to add to his life”) is truly staggering in the context of a rock’n’roll song. That said, it’s difficult not to read tortured lines such as “For entertainment they watch his body twist/Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist!’” as anything other than self-referential. Ultimately, Ian Curtis wasn’t cut out for the rigours of his chosen profession.

“I don’t think the fame and life on the road suited him very well,” Deborah Curtis reflected in 2014. “I think he would have continued to write even if he didn’t want to perform had he lived. When he got to 40 or 50, he probably could have written a terrific book.”

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