The Cure

The Cure were a requirement for the disaffected youth of the 80s and early 90s. They made gloomy, post-punk music with more than a touch of goth.  The 1980s were their heyday, creatively.  Sure, they hit the stratosphere in the 90s, on the back of that fucking horrible song, ‘Friday, I’m In Love,’ but by then, as far as I’m concerned, they were more or less a spent force.  The exception was their masterful 2000 album, Bloodflowers, which Robert Smith described as the final album in a trilogy begun in 1982 with Pornography.  The middle album of that trilogy was Disintegration, which came out in 1990.

This is, for my money, the greatest album The Cure ever made.  Their early albums were, as Smith later complained, greatly hindered by the fact that drummer Lol Tolhurst was, in fact, a pretty crappy drummer.  Thus, their songs were usually backed with very simple beats.  Pornography was an outlier, in that studio effects made Tolhurst a great drummer. But, after a detour into some, uh, interesting pop cheesiness (‘Love Cats,’ anyone?), a break up, during which Smith joined Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure returned in 1985 with The Head on the Door, their first gold album, and their first album with a more skilled drummer, Boris Williams.  That was followed in 1987, with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a double album that was largely experimental, perhaps signified best by the fact Smith cut his hair for the Hot Hot Hot’ video (I’m not kidding).

I loved The Cure.  I was hooked by Pornography, and it’s absolutely vicious assault on the listener, with highly processed guitars and Smith’s fatalist lyrics and voice.  By the time Disintegration came out, I had acquired the entire back catalogue of the band on cassette tape.  Kiss Me had been the first Cure album I bought when it came out.  Disintegration was the second.  The year 1989 wasn’t really the best for music, I have to say, though another landmark album, The Stone Roses, also dropped that year, and these two albums were basically what I listened to until the spring of 1991, when I graduated high school, though there was also a lot of Ride and other shoe gazer and Madchester bands by then.

In the winter of 1990, it snowed a lot in the far eastern suburbs of Vancouver, where I went to high school.  Where we lived was on the fringe of population, near the head of Burrard Inlet, adjacent to a dead company town, Ioco, named for the Imperial Oil Refinery down the road.  Most of the townsite had been reclaimed by nature, and the forest was pretty dense across the street.  If I didn’t hate it so much then, I would’ve been able to appreciate the natural beauty of the place.  I can now, when I go back to Vancouver, though it’s changed a lot.  Condos, redevelopment, monster homes, and so on.  But back in 1990, the 148 bus began its route in Ioco, travelling all the way to New Westminster.  I caught this bus to high school.

I remember the first time I heard this album, I put it in my Walkman as I waited for the bus one chilly, snowy morning, and sat on top of the bench under the bus shelter, waiting.  Usually, my buddy, Darren, got on the bus at the first stop, but that was about 1.5km away, so I had time to listen to some music.  This day, Darren didn’t get on, he was sick.  So I listened to the album all the way to school, ignoring all my other classmates on the bus.

When ‘Plainsong’ began, I was hooked.  Out of a sprinkle of bells, the song erupts, centred around a beat and this gorgeous synthesizer, before eventually, Porl Thompson’s guitar (and no one can play the guitar like him)  begins a plaintive riff.  And then Smith delivers his line in a flattened, saddened voice:

I think it’s dark and it looks like it’s rain, you said
And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second.
I think I’m old and I’m feeling pain, you said
And it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second.
Sometimes you make me feel
Like I’m living at the edge of the world
Like I’m living at the edge of the world
It’s just the way I smile, you said.
This is a cold song, it’s cold in the synthesizer, the guitar, the lyrics, and Smith’s vocals.  It’s also a cold song because I first heard it sitting on the top of that bench waiting for the bus, in the snow. It is a cold, cold day in New England today, as I write this, it’s around -12C outside, and there’s a half foot of snow on the ground as I listen to the song today.

‘Pictures of You’ is a companion, or echo, of ‘Plainsong,’ as here, Smith, gets into one of his trademark roles, as the depressed, saddened, ex-lover.  This is another strikingly beautiful and aching song, It also erupts out of a sprinkle of bells into a bass line from Simon Gallup and driving, insistent drums.  When Thompson arrives with his guitar, around 45 seconds in, it is another plaintive riff, as Gallup’s bass drives the song.  Interestingly, in 1990, The Cure released a remix album, Mixed Up, and ‘Pictures of You’ got a dub remix, which recreates a different bassline and beat for the track, it is one of the highlights of that album.

In 1988, Robert Smith was 30 years old, and he was in love, for real. With Mary, and had been for about forever.  Smith and Mary got married around then, and ‘Lovesong’ was the song he wrote for her on the occasion.  They waited until then to get married, so that they could say that they had known each other for half their lives before marrying. There is a romanticism in this.  The track itself, with Williams’ insistent drums, and Roger O’Donnell’s organ, has Thompson delivering a nice bit of post punk riffage, and Smith declares his endless love for Mary.  Love songs can be a dangerous proposition, especially when they are written from a genuine and real sentiment, they can easily get stupid and cheesy.  ‘Lovesong’ does not do this.

This was also, at least to my memory, the first radio hit The Cure had, at least in my corner of the world in the remote Northwest of North America.
‘Fascination Street’ had been the first single from the album, I remember hearing it in the gym during football season, on CFOX 99.3, where it got some radio play.  This is one of the greatest of all Cure songs, driven as it is by Gallup’s bass, Williams’ insistent drums, and the dual guitars of Thompson and Smith.  The song itself is about one of those streets, they don’t exist anymore, where the freaks came out to play.  Vancouver had one of those back in the day, Granville Street, which is one of the main north-south thoroughfares of Vancouver, though traffic is limited to busses.  I always thought of this song when I was on Granville, at least until the late 90s, when everything changed and Vancouver got so stupidly wealthy as to be almost pointless.  But in those days, Granville was a freak’s den, it was full of divey restaurants, bars, coffee shops, there were used record stores.  There were clothing stores, and there was the John Fluevog store just south of Robson St.  On the left hand side if you were walking south, just a few doors up from the  legendary Commodore Ballroom, with its bouncing floor.  This Fluevog was all velvet and lushness.  It was red and black, and those shoes!  I bought my first pair in 1990, saving up my money from my job at IHOP. They were glorious, pointed, with zippers and straps and buckles.  Fluevog is on the other side of the street now, in a bigger store.  And as much as I love that store, it ain’t the old one.

Side Two begins with ‘Prayers for Rain.’  In 1989-91, I rarely got to the second side, in part because Side One was so brilliant.  The other problem is that Side Two was much longer than Side One, and I had to fastforward forever to get to it.  So I tended to just rewind and replay Side One.  But, on those nights I did progress into Side Two, it was worth it.  It was always night.  This is not really music for the light of day.  It’s 1 in the afternoon right now as I write this, and it feels odd, even now, all these years later, to listen to this music during daylight.
‘Prayers for Rain’ is driven by the twin guitars of Thompson and Smith, as well as Gallup’s bass over top what is, you guessed it, an insistent beat from Williams.  It is only now, thirty years on, I am realizing how insistent his drumming is across this album, which is not how he played on the two earlier Cure albums he played on.  Anyway, Smith’s vocals are his usual fare, but, one of the reasons he never got boring in this era is that he was a master of delivery, both in the tenor of his voice, but also how he delivered the actual words.  He sang, in other words.

‘Disintegration’ is the centre-piece of the album, at least according to Smith.  Coming out of the turgid depths of ‘The Same Deep Water As You,’ the answer to ‘Prayers for Rain,’ and the longest song on the album, ‘Disintegration’ is driven by another beat from Williams, which allows the bass to bounce around and both O’Donnell’s synthesizers and Thompson’s guitar some more space, though they are muted here as the beat drives the song along.  The song is about the disintegration of a marriage, though, obviously not Smith’s.  Even to 16-17-18 year old me, the lyrics to this song hurt, I could feel the gut punch of Smith’s narrator,  leaving his wife and children, as the marriage comes apart.  Thirty years on, happily married, these lyrics are still a gut punch:
But I never said I would stay to the end
So I leave you with babies and hoping for frequency
Screaming like this in the hope of the secrecy
Screaming me over and over and over
I leave you with photographs, pictures of trickery
Stains on the carpet and stains on the scenery
Songs about happiness murmured in dreams
When we both of us knew how the ending would be.
Oftentimes, back in the day, this is where I had to stop the album on those nights I got into Side Two.  This song just hit so hard.  The emotional truths of the narrator of the song are delivered by Smith, whose voice is detached and higher pitched than usual, is what makes this song so powerful.  And I do find it amazing that now, all these years on, is just how powerful his delivery is.

As an aside, he and Mary are still married.
After this tour-de-force, Disintegration lurches, beautifully, to its end.  ‘Disintegration’ the track ends in a crash, and we move into the slow-burner, ‘Homesick,’ which builds on a gentle piano chord and Thompson’s guitar.  I always saw this track as the sequel to ‘Disintegration,’ removed from the anger and screaming pain of the initial breakup, Smith’s narrator now walks through fields of agony and regret, as, apparently, does his ex-wife, as they try to sort out what their relationship is going to be.
Hey hey, just one more and I’ll walk away
All the everything you win turns to nothing today
And I forget when to move when my mouth is this
Dry and my eyes are bursting hearts in a blood-stained sky
Oh it was sweet, it was wild and oh how we/
I trembled, stuck in honey
Honey cling to me, so just one more
Just one more go
Inspire in me the desire in me to never go home
(Doo doo doo doo doo doo)
(Doo doo doo doo doo)
Oh just one more and I’ll walk away
All the everything you win turns to nothing today
So just one more, just one more go inspire in me
The desire in me to never go home
To never go home.
I’ve never been divorced, I don’t have children, but I did leave a long-term relationship in the year 2000, one that just couldn’t survive, staggering as it was under its great weight.  And for the next two years, she and me attempted to unpack our dissolution, unsure as we were, as to whether or not we did the right thing in splitting.  And if our split was akin to ‘Disintegration,’ short of the babies, ‘Homesick’ was the sad, aching pain of the next two years of unsorting our feelings about each other and our split.  In the end, we went our separate ways.

The last track of the album is ‘Untitled,’ literally.  But it’s a continuation, and a way, I suppose, of Smith’s narrator finding peace with his decisions.  This one starts with as synthesizer sounding somewhat like an accordion before Williams’ drums arrive and Thompson plays one of his plaintive and beautiful riffs.  Gallup’s bass adds to the sadness, it is another achingly beautiful track.