My first thought when I heard the title was that it is atheist or at least non-Christian. The soul cannot die according to the Christian belief. And even if it was mortal it would not be the soul as we imagine it. A dead soul is a contradictio in adiecto. Later I realized that Dead Souls is a book by Gogol which Ian Curtis has read. Apparently it is about some sort of macabre financial scheme. The main person travels around in rural Russia to buy the registration papers of dead serfs from the landowners. A classic win-win situation, the landowners would save the taxes they have to pay on the „dead souls“ and the main character would get loans from big farms on behalf of them. Earning money from nothing. Somehow all that sounds like a precursor of the financial crisis to me.
Anyways let’s get back to the song. It was first released as the second track of the Licht und Blindheit double single on the French label Sordide Sentimentale in March 1980. Together with an essay on romanticism by Jean-Pierre Tumel. The other a-side Atmosphere is probably the Joy Divison song I am most allergic to. I absolutely can’t stand Ian Curtis grave disguised voice on it and the synthesizer which sounds like an angel suffused with light landing in a heavy procession doesn’t do anything for me. Pretentious bullshit artistry, if you ask me. Later on Corbijn made a video of it with men in black hooded cloaks walking along. CRAP.
I have deviated again. Dead Souls is a song which has no introduction. On record it starts immediately as if the record button had been switched on in the middle of rehearsing. First we hear Sumner’s guitar looking for a fierce riff and finding it after a while and some fine tom drumming by Morris. Hook’s bass joins in and rumbles and mumbles more or less in the background. Occasionally when it gets melodic it comes to the fore. Suddenly there is more distortion in the guitar, there is raw power, punk. And after a minute or so a groove has set in, it is all hanging there beautifully, moving up and down for another minute, do we really need a singer here?
Someone take these dreams away
That point me to another day
A duel of personalities
That stretch all true realities
Yes we do. The song suddenly gains in stature, it has a soul in form of a voice now. And somehow I don’t care that Curtis sings with that solemn habitus again as his voice sounds haunted now. He really is captured by something. In hindsight the first two lines could be interpreted as an announcement of suicide. Curtis does not want to think about another day, he has made his decision and everything which acts against is a bad dream. But there are still two personalities fighting in his breast. And then he shouts in a terrified way
They keep calling me
Keep on calling me
They keep calling me
He heard voices which he didn’t get out of his head. They always came back. They didn’t stop until May, 18th 1980.
P.S. The version from 18 January 1980 in Eindhoven which is on Les Bains Douches is awesome. The bass is much more prominent in the beginning. The whole song is amazingly rough and powerful. Another proof that they were the best live band ever.