Is My Timing That Flawed?I've just spent about twenty minutes listening to half a dozen different covers of one of my favorite songs, and I'm convinced absolutely no one can do it justice... even the broken shards of the band that originally recorded it.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart," originally recorded in 1979 by the seminal British gloom pop band Joy Division, is simultaneously the most beautiful and awful thing I've ever heard .. and I can't bear to pull myself away from it. If the lyrics aren't right in front of you, it would be easy to mistake the tune for a subtle love song, the accompanying instrumentation and synth is so misleadingly cheery. Or maybe it isn't that the music is pleasant, so much as it's merely brighter than the portrait painted by the vocal imagery. The words deal with the painful disintegration of an unsuccessful marriage, and in three short verses, tell enough of a tale to send even the most optimistic soul off into a corner to cry. "Why is the bedroom so cold? You've turned away on your side, is my timing that flawed?" he wonders, laying awake in bed after a wordless refusal. It's easy to identify with such a bleak, helpless, soul-crushing situation even if you've never experienced it yourself. That last, self-directed question is probably the toughest line of the song, ringing loudly and clearly after a full verse of more subdued, almost mumbled prose. To be brutally honest, Ian Curtis was an incredible lyricist, but his vocals are just abysmal. He sings these eloquent, heart-wrenching words in an out-of-tune baritone that's at once at home with and estranged from the noise that surrounds. Curtis wasn't born to be a vocalist, but because he trudges on so determined, the song connects. This isn't a glitzy rock star singing someone else's lyrics and looking fabulous in doing so, it's one of us. A common man, flaws, faults and all, baring his soul to the world.
The back-story and accompanying epilogue shrouds the song in an even deeper shade of grey. Clearly, the lyrics are a direct reflection of the singer's strained relationship with his own wife, and the destruction he'd wrought on their marriage due to a fleeting infidelity. Ian knew he'd made a life-altering mistake, but he didn't know how to atone for it.. or even if he could at all... and the lyrics display his internal struggle to cope with the situation. Six months after the song was first performed, (in a session with the legendary John Peel) Curtis hanged himself. The title of this song adorns his headstone at his widow's request.
When Ian Curtis ended his own life, he simultaneously cemented the band's reputation in independent music lore. Joy Division was just days away from embarking on what was considered by many to be a potential breakthrough tour of the United States. They were on the cusp of immense popularity, only a month away from the release of "Closer," perhaps their strongest album to date, and would likely have factored heavily into the musical landscape. They were the prototypical "burn out, don't fade away" band. They ended, explosively, just moments before reaching widespread public acclaim, and as such will be forever suspended between popular acceptance and underground respect. Nowhere is this last fact more apparent than in the eventual chart-topping success and acclaim of New Order, the name taken by the remaining members of Joy Division in the years to come. While the natural evolution of the group's music continued almost uninterrupted, (truly, listening to the entire catalog of both bands in chronological order is a surprisingly organic experience) the lyrics just couldn't hope to match what had come before. While Bernard Sumner's vocals with the "new" band were technically much more polished and appealing than Curtis's with Joy Division, his lyrics aren't even in the same league. Sumner's words are almost laughably thin, while Curtis's are overwhelmingly rich, honest and vivid. They'd changed, and while they were generally accepted by the public, New Order never had the respect of the independents like Joy Division did.
And, after listening to this collection of covers, it's become obvious that only Ian Curtis vocals can do justice to Ian Curtis lyrics. Literally dozens of high-profile singers and bands have tried their hand at modifying and improving upon these seemingly-meager vocals, and none can match even a fraction of the honesty and absolute despair conveyed by that original recording. I've heard covers by U2, by 10,000 Maniacs, by Fallout Boy, even by New Order themselves, and the song just doesn't work without that deep, nigh-emotionless drone. It sounds too pretty when sung with any additional range, but fails just as regularly when the singer attempts to mimic Curtis's off-key approach. The words are there, but they don't have the same definition aboard anyone else's voice. It's almost like this is a song that cannot succeed unless the singer is himself on the verge of suicide.
As I had said, this song is at once gorgeous and horrible. This is a private man, completely opening himself to you without any reservation. He's sharing his most private, deeply embarrassing moments and thoughts, and ultimately it seems that even that level of personal reflection wasn't enough to help him move past what he'd done and what he'd sown. This is about as close as I can imagine a soul getting to the written word, and although the scenario he describes is so very painful and depressing, that in itself is a beautiful thing to behold. Merged with the hauntingly-tuned music it accompanies, I'd dare say this is one of the best songs ever recorded... and one that will never be performed successfully ever again.
"When routine bites hard, and ambitions are low
And resentment rides high, but emotions won't grow
And we're changing our ways, taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
Why is the bedroom so cold? You've turned away on your side
Is my timing that flawed - have our feelings run dry?
Yet there's still this appeal that we've kept through our lives
Love, love will tear us apart again
You cry out in your sleep - all my failings exposed
There's a taste in my mouth, as desperation takes hold
Just that something so good just can't function any more
When love, love will tear us apart again"