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One bleak day gives way to another in Joy Division’s “24 Hours”

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In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: In honor of Leap Day, we pick our favorite songs about time.

Joy Division, “24 Hours” (1980)

Peter Hook plays a six-note bass-guitar riff throughout Joy Division’s “24 Hours,” with slight variations. Sometimes he plays one extra note; sometimes one less. Sometimes the riff walks up; sometimes it starts out in that direction and then suddenly drops off a cliff. It’s almost like Hook’s writing the music in real time, testing out different combinations to see which one sounds best. As the tempo shifts, Hook stays his course. He knows there’s something there: catchy enough to be hummable, yet downbeat enough to make the cheeriest listener feel instantly blue.

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It’s tempting to read a lot into the songs on Joy Division’s final studio album, Closer, because it was recorded just over a month before frontman Ian Curtis committed suicide. Anyone looking for clues to Curtis’ mental state could fill an entire notebook with observations on “24 Hours.” Even the first few words—“so this is permanence”—sound like the cry of a man who’s given up. “24 Hours” is a stock-taking song, and what the singer discovers about himself is not encouraging in any way. He seems to think that any window of opportunity he may have had to salvage his relationships or even find any simple happiness has long-since closed. “I watched it slip away,” he moans. Looking beyond today, he’s certain, “There’s nothing there at all.”

So “24 Hours” isn’t exactly upbeat—at least when it comes to what Curtis has to say about his situation. Musically though, this is actually one of the rare uptempo songs on Closer. The rhythms alternate between funereal and almost punky, recalling some of Joy Division’s earliest singles. It bridges every era of the band, in a way that makes it feel all the more final. It’s a last hurrah, encompassing all that Joy Division could be, and distilling the despairing themes of so much of Curtis’ writing.

That’s why the bass line is so vital to “24 Hours”: It propels the song, but also carries the message, sad as it is. After all the different attempts at the central riff, Hook takes one last crack at it, with six more notes. He ends on a down note—inevitably, conclusively, and inescapably.

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