Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” Lyrics Meaning

Needless to say, Ian Curtis had some serious issues he had to contend with. Reportedly amongst them was him being under the impression that he lived a past life, having walked the Earth previously during the Middle Ages. His bandmate, Bernard Sumner, was able to extract this belief out of Curtis while the latter was under hypnosis, which many of us understand as a state in which the subconscious comes more to the forefront. But the lyrics of “Dead Souls” reveal that Ian, to some degree, obviously held such a conviction consciously also.

The Lyrics

More specifically, just to note, he believed that he existed during the 100 Years War. Or at least as relayed in the first verse leading into the chorus, Ian implies that he had “dreams” pointing to such a notion that were so pronounced that it was akin to him possessing an alternate personality, where he could not separate such visions from reality.

Then in the second verse we hear him referring to “figures from the past”, “conquistadors” and what have you. And he does so in a fashion which, as implied above, Curtis insinuates that he is having visions from the days of old. The related information he emits is not anything that would convince a skeptic, as it is the type that can easily be gleaned from any history book. But that said, reading in between the lines, it can be ascertained that the vocalist is using the opportunity to criticize the historical powers that be, i.e. European imperialists.

But the thesis sentiment is meant to reiterate the idea that this is not a case of the narrator simply creatively recounting something he learned in school. He is putting forth that these “figures from the past… keep calling him”, as if he is haunted by their actual spirits. And those would presumably be the “dead souls” referred to in the title.

Lyrics for Joy Division's "Dead Souls"

Joy Division

Joy Division was a rock band from England that was only around (in their original incarnation) for about half a decade, from 1976 to 1980. Within that time they dropped two LPs, “Unknown Pleasures” (1979) and “Closer” (1980), which topped the UK Indie Chart. However, the group had its issues. The nail in the coffin of this musical act was when one of its members, lead vocalist Ian Curtis, committed suicide in mid-1980 at the age of 23.

“Dead Souls”

“Dead Souls” originally came out on 18 March 1980 as the (limited edition) B-side to another Joy Division track titled “Licht und Blindheit” (aka “Atmosphere“) under a label called Sordide Sentimental. 

The song was later featured on “Still”, the band’s first compilation album, that came out in 1981 under Factory Records. 

The track was actually recorded in late 1979. So at that time, besides Ian, the other members of Joy Division would have been the following:

  • guitarist Bernard Sumner
  • bassist Peter Hook
  • drummer Stephen Morris

It should be pointed out that “Dead Souls” is one of the group’s most highly-regarded songs.

Hook, Morris, Sumner and the late Curtis are the writers of this track. “Dead Souls” was produced by Martin Hannett (1948-1991).

To note, the title of this song is said to have been derived from a book of the same name, Dead Souls (1842). The book in question was written by 19th century novelist Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852).

In 1994, Nine Inch Nails covered “Dead Souls” for the soundtrack of The Crow, an action movie starring Brandon Lee (1965-1993). That rendition of the tune is also considered to be sort of a classic.

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