Album Analysis | Disintegration — The Cure
While we anxiously await The Cure’s first studio album in eleven years, we look back at their 30-year-old masterwork.
About thirty miles south of London lies Crawley, West Sussex, a suburban “no-man's land” from which The Cure originates. Through the eyes of band co-founder Lol Tolhurst, Crawley was “…a place where it’s always raining and a slate grey sky hangs over everything.” (a description thereof that is also fitting of much of their back-catalogue). It was under this ‘slate grey sky’ that several school friends would assemble their version of a punk band. Among these were multi-instrumentalist and frontman Robert Smith, drummer Lol Tolhurst, guitarist Pearl (then Porl) Thompson, and bassist Michael Dempsey. Of these original members, only Robert Smith remains currently; their ever-changing line-up would be proportional to their never-ending musical exploration.
Inspired by William Burroughs’ text cut-up technique, the band picked their name out of a hat of fragmented lyrics; their fate was sealed when “Easy Cure” was selected. After a slight adjustment to their name, The Cure, with a three-man line-up, released their post-punk debut Three Imaginary Boys in 1979. Inexperienced in the studio, and with no creative control, Smith later called it “superficial.” Nonetheless, the band soon found their signature sound. Their follow up, Seventeen Seconds (1981), stripped every instrument bare and was an atmospheric and gloomy introduction to their darkest phase. On top of that, it would be the first album to feature longtime bassist Simon Gallup, Smith’s right-hand man. "For a group as young as the Cure, it seems amazing that they have covered so much territory in such a brief time." Their third record, Faith (1982), followed in the same foggy suit, and Pornography (1983) culminated in their most distressing sound ever, in-fighting, and seemingly the end of the band.
However, a few months later Smith re-grouped with Tolhurst, now on keyboard duties, and made the psychedelic, hallucinogenic-influenced, transitional record, The Top (1984). This transitional period was monumental for The Cure, having re-invented their sound once again with joyful singles like “The Lovecats” and “Let's Go to Bed”, Robert Smith made sure The Cure would never be typecast as a “gothic” band, a classification he still despises to this day. Accidentally attracting a younger, teenage audience was liberating to Smith, “It went from intense, menacing, psychotic goths to people with perfect white teeth.”
“The Cure tore through the 1980s the way The Beatles rushed through the 1960s, or Bowie the 1970s: wildly prolific, constantly changing” - Irish Times
Soon enough all bitter disputes were left behind and The Cure reformed as a strong quintet, with the return of Simon Gallup helming the bass, and adding guitarist and old friend Pearl Thompson (who had left before their debut) and drummer Boris Williams as official members. In 1985, their rise to fame became exponential with the release of the pop-infused hit Head On The Door (1985), which successfully bridged The Cure’s pop and gloom, and their eclectic double-album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987). The mainstream success of singles like “In Between Days”, “Close to Me”, and “Just Like Heaven” demonstrated that Smith had truly perfected the pop song. Behind the scenes of The Cure’s string of accessible hits, however, was a growing disdain for keyboardist Lol Tolhurst, whose alcoholism had rendered him incapable of pulling his weight in the band. Keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, who was hired to assist on their 1987 world tour, would ultimately replace him entirely after the completion of Disintegration (1989).
“Just as everyone else was getting ready to jump on the new sound that The Cure helped usher into the world, they were already moving to new pastures.” - Trent Reznor
As he approached the end of the decade, Smith began to grow weary of The Cure’s new-found pop sensationalism. The successful tours and all the consequences of fame led to growing feelings of anxiety and depression. With his 30th birthday looming, Smith felt the urgency to return to more serious music, feeling that all music artists he admired had made their masterpiece before that age: “This is it. This is my last chance to create something really meaningful in my life.” He began occasionally using LSD for “self-exploration” while writing music, lyrics, and producing demos of what would form the basis of their eighth studio album Disintegration.
In the summer of ’88, at Boris William’s home, the band rated the demos Smith and each individual band member had produced from 1-10, and recorded 32 songs at Williams house with a 16-track recorder. “We never fine-tune things at the demo stage. A lot of the fun of being in the studio is adding that element of improvisation.” (Smith). Later that autumn the band began recording the final versions “…in a concentrated burst” at Hook End Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, located in the English countryside and once owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.
Varying accounts exist on these sessions. Smith himself has said that they were “…melancholy” and “…very, very sombre.” Especially compared to the sessions for their previous album which according to Smith were basically a wine-filled “…party in the south of France.” Smith has also stated in interviews that due to the seriousness of the musical content he purposefully made the sessions difficult and uncomfortable for everyone, going as far as trying to be as silent as possible, even passing notes to avoid speaking. “I [Smith] decided I would be monk-like and not talk to anyone, I wanted an environment that was slightly unpleasant.”
Contrastingly, Keyboardist Roger O’Donnell looks back fondly at the sessions, “I remember very clearly laughing and joking and fooling around in the control room while Robert was singing ‘Disintegration’ and then all of us trying to be serious when he came in to listen back. I don’t know how he put up with it really. It was never a serious atmosphere in the studio and when you think about the album and how dark it is, I’m sure people think we were sitting around slitting our wrists with candles and chains hanging from the walls.”
Disintegration was co-produced by Smith and David M. Allen who had worked with the band since The Top (1984). The production on Disintegration is surprisingly crisp, the sound still standing strong 30 years later. Robert Smith’s ‘less is more’ ethic is effective. In addition, The Cure’s lineup was as strong as ever, each talented in their own realm, yet as a band extremely cohesive. Their experimentation relied on fine-tuning, subtle sonic landscapes, delicate guitar modulation, and finding the most appropriate timbre and arrangements to convey Smith’s angst at the futility of passing time and its consequence on emotive sensitivity. The album artwork, which finds only Smith on the cover, reflects the strong personal connection of the material. Throughout the record are multi-layered songs with foundations laid by the Fender VI six-string bass and the lush Solina string ensemble synthesizer, the basis for what Smith considers the ‘Cure’ sound. The Cure’s exploration of a wide spectrum of music in the last decade, and the maturity of Smith’s songwriting, would create an album that would stand as a testament to their everlasting reputation.
“the album is culmination of all the musical directions The Cure were pursuing over the course of the ‘80s" - Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic
“Plainsong” (don’t let the title fool you) opens with the quiet, haunting glitter of wind chimes, a sound that Smith loves to use, and the listener is forced to raise the volume. This trick works like a charm as 25 seconds later, full-bodied lush orchestral synthesizers come crashing down. A melancholy conversation ensues in the lyrics that perfectly fits the mood, “I think it’s dark and it looks like it’s rain, you said.” and the urgency of Smith’s life is apparent, “I think I’m old and I’m feeling pain…”, “And it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world.” As he interchanges between delivering his lines and playing the signature Cure guitar progression, the song perfectly introduces the listener to the journey through Disintegration.
“Plainsong” fades out beautifully and a sudden arpeggio of wind chimes leads into “Pictures of You.” And it’s no wonder the “Plainsong”/ “Pictures of You” combination has been one of The Cure’s signature openers throughout their live performances. Released as the fourth single from the album, it quickly became one of The Cure’s all-time signature songs. Formulated of the perfect arrangement of Gallup’s prominent bass hook, Thompson’s lead guitar, Smith’s six-string bass, O’Donnell’s epic synth stabs, and Williams' tight kit gluing it all together. Gently woven into the fabric of these layers is “the most exquisite of instruments” (Reznor), Robert Smith’s unique voice, which shows tremendous fragility through every nuance of his delivery. As far as Disintegration goes, “Pictures of You” is one of the most accessible and least depressing tracks. It’s also one of The Cure’s most relatable songs, as an anthem of love, loss, and regret.
The third track “Closedown” effectively summarizes the feelings that inspired Smith to create this album. It opens loudly, boasting Boris Williams' talent at creating arrangements on the toms superimposed by O’Donnell’s grand synth-strings. In the middle of repeating instrumental sections is a lyrical poem by Smith of eight short lines. Singing with a hint of anguish:
“I’m running out of time
I’m out of step and closing down
And never sleep for wanting hours
The empty hours of greed
And uselessly always the need
To feel again the real belief
Something more than mockery
If only I could fill my heart with love”
Thematically, “Closedown” is one of the most important songs on the record. "The biggest frustration (of getting older) is not being able to feel strong emotions anymore," Smith said when discussing the album's lyrics, "Cynicism enters your world and you get numb.”
The next track “Lovesong”, was written by Smith as a wedding present for his wife Mary. Originally a Simon Gallup demo that Smith adapted and simplified, the band later argued it didn’t belong on the album due to its straightforward pop structure and more upbeat nature. Smith had to include it however, and rightly so as it became surprisingly successful in the charts and stands as another of their signature songs. “Lovesong” is centred on Gallup's bass, one of his best ever riffs, and a simple repeating keyboard melody over a solid backbeat of drums. While the song doesn’t follow the same themes or structure as the rest of the album, its inclusion was effective and Disintegration wouldn’t be the same without it - “Lovesong” effectively balances out the album. “I was trying to put in one or two beacons of light in amongst the darkness, and “Lovesong” is one of them” (Smith). Although it is one of the few “beacons of light” in the album, “Lovesong” is intimately melancholy. Smith’s vocals couldn’t be more fragile, honest, and powerful. “It's an open show of emotion. It's not trying to be clever. It's taken me ten years to reach the point where I feel comfortable singing a very straightforward love song.” (Smith)
The fifth track, “Last Dance,” which was not included on original vinyl releases due to the mediums’ time restriction, is an essential transition between “Lovesong” and the next single “Lullaby.” It’s a slow brooding song with the same themes of aging, and finality. According to Smith it is about “…someone that you meet and you haven’t seen for a long time. And you used to have very strong feelings for and you don’t anymore, you suddenly realize… It’s a horrible sensation.”
Up next is “Lullaby”, a catchy nightmarish bedtime tune that became their highest-charting single in the UK. With its whispered lyrics and dark instrumentation, it’s the spookiest song The Cure has released. The source of the lyrics' subject is debated. A common source for the song is childhood nightmares told by his relative. In an MTV interview, Smith said, “One particular night, my uncle burst through the window, and he did unspeakable things,” said Smith, before adding with a laugh, “He didn't really.” Longtime music video director and collaborator Tim Pope has said about Smith, "He's one of the hugest liars, but in a lovely cuddly sort of way. He frames his story however he wants to. So maybe that's one of his, shall we say, slightly made-up stories.” Smith is often an ‘unreliable narrator,’ therefore the source of most Cure songs is usually left to the imagination of the fan. However, the true meaning of “Lullaby”, is probably an allegory for Smith’s drug addiction.
With “Fascination Street”, the record picks up some speed. With screeching guitar feedback, the song takes off with a powerful extended bass introduction. Its peculiar form of one verse and two chorus sections in between long instrumental parts doesn’t surprise the listener at this point in the record. Lyrically inspired by the craze that is Bourbon Street, New Orleans, an area famed for its music and club scene, it sounds like a hellish night on the town. Smith has said this about the song, “I was thinking of Bourbon Street in New Orleans when I wrote it - I was getting ready to go there and I thought: what the f--k do I think I'm going to find? It's about the incredulity that I could still be fooled into looking for a perfect moment.” “Fascination Street” was released as a North America-only single, as their American label Elektra refused to release the UK favourite “Lullaby” as their first American single. Yet it remains a fan favourite, often played live, effectively giving more energy to their sets in between the gloomy synth-operatic Cure ballads.
The second half of the record contains much longer, more despairing songs that are the true heart of Disintegration. In the eighth track, “Prayers for Rain”, the title says it all. This tune exemplifies The Cure’s sound - a beautifully-mixed arrangement of synthesizers, their distinctive processed flanging guitars, rhythmic bashing drums, and backwards tape effects, all covered by a thick cloud of reverberation. Once again Smith's desolation can be heard clearly, “ infectious sense of hopelessness and prayers for rain” “…drab the hours all spend on killing time again.” “I live in dirt and nowhere glows but drearily and tired”. “Prayers for Rain” evokes feelings of anger, anxiety, apathy, and hopelessness. However, the metaphorical rain could signify a cleansing renewed spirit; a much-needed shower for the dry soil that is the feeling of futility.
One way or another, Smith’s prayers get answered in “The Same Deep Water as You”, which fades in with the sound of a thunderstorm as if right outside your house. This song is the longest on the album at 9:22, and is one of the most sulking tracks of The Cure’s career. Despite its initial impenetrability, it’s considered by many to be some the band's best work (and it is), and a song Smith considers very personal. Although It can be interpreted as a doomed love story, Smith has said it is about “…the expectations people have from you, and how you never can live up to those expectations.” Smith takes several pauses during the song, allowing the instrumental sections to develop adagio. His voice often comes out almost unexpectedly, solemnly singing, “Kiss me goodbye… and we shall be together.” When the instrumental outro stops we are left with the same sound of thunder and rain that greeted us nine minutes before.
It’s not over yet however - Robert Smith has a few tricks left in his sleeve, and the title track is one of them. The sound of glass shattering kicks off the song, immediately taking form as a bass-heavy — snare-driven track. In the extended introduction, guitars are buried deep into the mix, the bass section remains prominent, and the occasional shard of the glass tears apart in the background. As the song progresses, orchestral synthesizers and electric guitar develop. Standing at a lengthy 8:20, and based on a simple repeating chord progression, the song’s unusual structure unnerves and appeals all at once. “Disintegration” contains some of Gallup’s most memorable bass progressions, Williams' subtle drum variations, the slow introduction of Smith and Pearl’s interchanging guitars, and O’Donnell’s haunting synthesizer, superimposed by one of Robert Smith’s strongest vocal moments. The lyrics are among his longest, most magnificent, and ambiguous:
“Now that I know that I'm breaking to pieces
I'll pull out my heart and I'll feed it to anyone
Crying for sympathy
For the love of the crowd and three cheers from everyone
Dropping through sky
Through the glass of the roof
Through the roof of your mouth
Through the mouth of your eye
Through the eye of the needle
It's easier for me
To get closer to Heaven than ever feel whole again”
“Disintegration” is one of the most unique of The Cure’s career, yet it sounds so familiar. It is the climax of the record and arguably The Cure’s most epic work. As the namesake of the album, the track perfectly encapsulates the themes of coming to pieces sonically, aesthetically, and lyrically. In fact, writing the lyrics to this track around the time of Smith's 29th birthday pretty much kicked off the creative flow that became the album. As stated by Robert Smith, “…its just about the sense of falling apart that I can’t ever seem to shake it off. “Disintegration” is obvious, it’s my scream against everything falling apart, and my right to quit with it when I want to.”
Fortunately, the two final tracks of the album manage to lower the heart rate and give much needed time to breathe. The eleventh track “Homesick” is founding member Lol Tolhurst’s last actual contribution to a Cure song. While marked as “other instruments” on all songs, “Homesick” is the only track he actually assisted with. As with “Last Dance”, it wasn’t included on the original vinyl release. Introduced by an alluring marriage of piano and bass, it slowly becomes more and more melancholy, forming into another one of those bleak Cure ballads. Nonetheless, it remains a beautiful song, the brushed kit, heavily layered electric guitars, and persistent backing keyboard solo makes it a very worthy track.
The final track “Untitled”, was once described by Billboard as a song “…so depressing that Smith couldn’t even give it a name.” Beginning with the desolate chords of a harmonium organ, “Untitled” immediately sounds like a song fit for a funeral. Yet, when the whole band starts playing, it takes a much more heartening form. It’s notable for Williams' prominent crashing drums, with continuous drum fills. Smith has called it “…a hopeful song in a hopeless world”. but lyrically “Untitled” certainly comes off as a tale of remorse. The juxtaposition of Smith’s agonizing lyrics delivered with dry sincerity, with an instrumentation that’s musically reassuring, is superb. His closing lines in a way express the essence of the whole album:
“Hopelessly fighting the devil futility
Feeling the monster climb deeper inside of me
Feeling him gnawing my heart away hungrily
I’ll never lose this pain
Never dream of you again”
What's left after Smith has left the room is another three minutes of the band, ever so slowly fading out until those same out-of-tune harmonium chords are the only sound remaining. Disintegration couldn’t have a better ending.
“They’ve been in and out of fashion so many times in the last four decades that they ended up transcending fashion itself.” - Trent Reznor
On their first listen of Disintegration, the executives of The Cure’s American label Elektra, were not impressed, calling it “commercial suicide” and accusing Smith of being “wilfully obscure." Yet, it became The Cure’s commercial peak at the time, sold three million copies, and sold-out stadiums during the Prayers tour. In his intention to create The Cure’s masterpiece he was undoubtedly successful. Disintegration cemented The Cure’s reputation as a milestone in music history and as one of the most authentic musical acts to ever walk the planet. Nobody sounds like Robert Smith and The Cure and nobody ever will. And while the fate of Disintegration retaliated against the band in the coming decade, with a change in lineup and sound, ending their so-called golden age, one way or another they survived. Their induction into the 2018 Rock and Roll hall of fame, their recent grandiose live sets, and their upcoming studio releases are a testament to the fact that The Cure is still the world's biggest cult band.