It has been listed on countless charts and in so many ranking polls as one of the most – if not the most – influential and perfect pop song of all time. It has inspired musicians all over the world, and united a cadre of dark music genres that do not easily converge. A deconstructed love song, an ode to the fragility and breakdown of relationships and psychological turmoil that results, it has been an anthem for misfits and outcasts the world over for forty years.
But why does “Love Will Tear Us Apart” strike so many chords, and why does it endure, even after the suicide of Ian Curtis a month before its release and the disintegration of Joy Division, paving the way for varying post-punk timelines? What is it about this track, specifically, that continues to move people, decades later?
Ian Curtis understood the quilted nature of songwriting; while he did not generally write music himself, he was adept at piecing together melodies, finding the hook around which to weave a narrative. His lyrics reflected a scene, and a life, so broken and anguished that it tentacled out into something so good, it couldn’t function no more. But the magic inherent to this particular song comes from collaboration – blooming beneath the bleak, uncomfortable intimacy and vulnerability of the plaintive vocals are the gears of Joy Division’s punchy Peter Hook bassline, its suspenseful swelling Bernard Sumner synth, its deliberate, driving Stephen Morris drumline. The deep sorrow built into the track’s DNA bleeds through to this day, and it still influences the lifeblood of artists decades later. Curtis, and indeed the other members of Joy Division, couldn’t have known its reach – producer Martin Hannett saw a glimpse of its spiritual longevity, and mixed it to near-perfection, but even he likely could not have foreseen how significant the single would become.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” has been covered by artists as diverse as Squarepusher, Swans, Fall Out Boy, and Passenger, among dozens of others. It has graced best-of lists from music magazines and topped indie music charts and polls across its forty-year reign as one of Manchester post-punk’s most recognized and prominent songs. But its true legacy lies in the music it has so beautifully inspired across the years; its tragic role as the love letter Ian Curtis would leave the world as he took his life in May, 1980 reflected in the severe vulnerabilities it permitted itself to expose, to be taken up like a mantel by future musicians. To crawl inside the frustrations and devastations within Ian Curtis is to feel the microcosm of a universe imploding upon itself.
Italian darkwave project HAPAX consider it a “beacon in the musical ocean of [their] listening”, a “magical song that represents an entire suffering and disadvantaged generation crushed by homologation. It made all the ‘different’ free and proud.” In today’s world, youth struggling to define themselves amid the terrors of climate change, human rights violations, a global pandemic and so much more, find that suffering second-nature. HAPAX itself currents this legacy through present reality’s soundtrack, believing that “if you love post-punk or darkwave music, you can only spiritually quote Joy Division” – and yet, the fingerprints of Ian Curtis clearly form trails through the albums they create – their most recent, Monade, a lamentation on the difficulties in communication, a theme definitely shared by “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
For singer-songwriter Isaac Howlett of the UK electronic band Empathy Test, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a favorite song, and his group’s music is definitely directly inspired by it – “where the music is incredibly uplifting, but the vocal and lyrics are deeply sad and emotional.” The recently released third Empathy Test album, Monsters, leans on just that sort of dramatic dichotomy, presenting a number of songs that deal with themes of anxiety, regret, and emotional claustrophobia all set to richly painted sonic backdrops.
“You find yourself singing along quite merrily to what is actually a really heartbreaking song,” Howlett muses. “I think it has endured for the same reasons, although great songs are inherently timeless. It deals with universal themes in a very personal and interesting way. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter what he is singing in the verses, it’s all about that one titular line that seems to carry so much meaning while simultaneously defying a simple explanation.”
For New York’s post-punk and darkwave outlet Bootblacks, the answer is, in fact, a simple one: “I think the song has endured so long because it’s a breakup song,” says vocalist Panther MacDonald. “It seems to me the majority of lyrical themes in popular music in the Twentieth Century are about the breakup, or other types of impossible love. Music is uniquely qualified to speak empathically to that feeling. I don’t know a single person that hasn’t been heartbroken that hasn’t had that song help them through the breakup.”
Barrett Hiatt (synths) adds, “It’s pretty hard to imagine post-punk without Joy Division.” He further notes that Bootblacks are often compared to them, which he notes is “a huge compliment.”
“I don’t think the comparison is necessarily because we sound like them,” Hiatt says, “but more so the way you can make dark, introspective music that you can still dance to. It’s all in the feeling that the music generates. They succeeded at that, and that’s where the inspiration comes from.” The band will release their next album, Thin Skies, in October of 2020, a long-anticipated new chapter for the genre-blending darkwavers that promises to be well worth the wait.
Howard Melnick, guitarist and songwriter for Miami’s dark and dreamy Astari Nite, reminisces: “At the time that I’d discovered Joy Division, a lot of bands and artists wanted to sound bigger, angrier, faster and scarier than the next. For me, what made made me connect with them at nineteen, twenty years old was the way they sounded. Their music sounded as I felt,” Melnick continues. “Which is why – amongst other bands or artists – I hold them very dear. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is just a great song in every sense. I get choked up from time to time, thinking how difficult it must’ve been for Ian to process all these feelings, what he was going through at such a young age. A lot of people look to his songs to find solace in whatever they’re going through in their lives,” Melnick adds. “I know I do.”
Astari Nite’s most recent album, Here Lies, certainly carries the Joy Division transmission, its dark and beautiful soundscapes very much echoing the despondence and loneliness of Ian Curtis’s most celebrated legacy.
Chicago “dark crooner” Jack Armondo, whose project Panic Priest recently released its sophomore record Second Seduction, sees “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as having a foundational impact over his approach to music since the very beginning.
“I don’t think I would be the ‘dark crooner’ I am today if I hadn’t heard ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ at a formative age,” he ruminates. “I grew up with a father who listened to crooners like Frank Sinatra, and of course, in good punk fashion, I always rebelled against that particular influence. It only took me twenty or so odd years to realize that embracing that side and making it your own thing is exactly what Curtis did,” Armondo continues. “’Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is a combination of raw emotion, deceptively simple rhythm and brilliant melody that has never been reproduced to quite the same effect. I wish I could write something so timeless.”
The Lasting Legacy
These five projects, and scores more besides, would not be exactly what they are without this particular song – a sonic monument with a tender heart, the core of which is its simply artful humanity. Through the lens of one man’s desperation and despair, people see themselves. At forty, few tracks can claim to be the focal base for such widespread branches, and perhaps the greatest heartbreak to come from it is that Curtis himself never would understand just how much his singular experience would speak to the entire world. The words “Love Will Tear Us Apart” adorn his grave marker, and yet within them, he is alive still.
One expects that he always will be.
Sincerest thanks to:
- HAPAX (http://www.hapaxband.com)
- Empathy Test (https://www.empathytest.com)
- Bootblacks (http://www.bootblacks.net)
- Astari Nite (http://linktr.ee/AstariNite)
- Panic Priest (http://www.panicpriest.com)
for their participation in this article.
Please support the ongoing legacy of Ian Curtis and Joy Division by purchasing their music and merchandise.
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