Joy Division, “Atmosphere”


Videos by American Songwriter

Those of you who are addicted to the Netflix original series Stranger Things are likely digging the 80’s-era musical gems that the producers sprinkled throughout the first season. Including Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” was a stroke of genius, not just because the emotion of the moment it soundtracks was perfectly captured by the song’s brooding intensity. Joy Division are ideal signifiers for the era, because they in many ways anticipated what the decade would sound like before it even arrived.

Most of the band’s music was recorded before the turn of the decade. “Atmosphere,” one of the band’s final releases before the death of lead singer Ian Curtis by suicide, came out in the spring of 1980. And yet the band’s sound, insinuating and evocative instead of pounding and bombastic, would provide a blueprint for some of the MTV bands who would come along in their wake and take that template all the way to the bank.

Curtis explained Joy Division’s outlook towards pushing boundaries in a 1979 interview with NME. “You’re always working to the next song,” he said. “No matter how many songs you’ve done, you’re always looking for the next one. Basically we play what we want. It’d be very easy for us to say: well, all these people seem to like such and such a song … it’d be easy to knock out another one. We don’t.”

In the case of “Atmosphere,” the band created a piece of music that easily could have worked as an instrumental. It builds and builds via Stephen Morris’ relentlessly thumping drums, while Peter Hook finds creases for probing bass notes. Bernard Sumner clears the tension occasionally with sprightly keyboards. The end result is something that sounds like it’s trying to claw its way out of the depths of despair. Based on evidence like this, it’s understandable how Sumner, Hook, and Morris could pick themselves up after Curtis’ death and find huge success as New Order.

Curtis’ performance meanwhile is unfailingly compelling. On paper, the lyrics can seem inscrutable, but the quiver in Curtis’s voice makes clear that these words are a futile conversation with someone who seems to have already departed the haunted landscape inhabited by the narrator. At the beginning of the song, he seems to want to resolve their issues without it devolving into an argument: “Walk in silence/Don’t walk away in silence.” The “endless talking” seems to be injuring him, but he also sees this separation as a kind of cycle that must perpetuate itself: “Life rebuilding.”

A verbal altercation is reduced to its basest elements in the second verse: “Your confusion/ My illusion/ Worn like a mask of self-hate/ Confronts and then dies.” Yet he imagines that his partner is able to somehow handle this tumult with ease, as embodied by the images of freedom that follow: “Naked to see/ Walking on air.” “Every corner abandoned too soon/ Set down with due care,” Curtis concludes, suggesting that any attempts to soften the sting of the breakup are mitigated by the lack of effort put into saving the relationship in the first place.

“Atmosphere” is the type of song that might elicit a thousand different reactions and interpretations from a thousand different listeners. All that matters is that the song transports you back to a time when Joy Division helped innovate a new musical decade into existence.

Read the lyrics. 

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