The Cure - Disintegration - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Cure - Disintegration

by Howard Scott Rating:10 Release Date:1989-05-02
The Cure - Disintegration
The Cure - Disintegration

They say the way to tell if a book is well written and holds the reader’s interest is that it is impossible to put down once picked up. The Cure’s eighth studio album, "Disintegration”, is the musical equivalent of that good read. Once the opening wind chimes of “Plainsong” ring in your ears, you are hooked.

The magnificent sound of the opener wraps around you like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. You soon become aware, however, that it isn’t really a warm blanket. It is more like a straight jacket, with Robert Smith and gang tightening the straps and keeping you fully mesmerized for 72 minutes of glum grandeur.

“Plainsong” introduces several patterns that become evident throughout the 12 song opus. First is the incredible keyboard and synth work of Roger O’Donnell and Simon Gallup. Phil Spector may have had his Wall of Sound, but The Cure created a fortress of sound, or maybe a falling down, overgrown castle of sound. Almost all of the cuts are highlighted by incredible orchestral panoramas of music. In 1989, when “Disintegration” was released, there were a lot of bands trying to meld electronic keyboards with guitar effects to create listenable music, but none did it as well as The Cure.

Secondly, most of the tunes also have a two to three minute instrumental introduction, before Mr. Smith ever opens his mouth. When Smith does vocalize, he is in a calm, subdued mood throughout. On previous albums, he had played with his vocal technique to create sometimes odd effects. None of that here. We are almost three minutes into “Plainsong” before any vocal is attempted.

The history of “Disintegration” is equally as interesting as the music itself. Smith, newly married and quickly approaching his 30th birthday, was in a near panic over the upcoming milestone. He firmly believed that no artist had written their best work once the third decade was over, and he decided he better get busy. Like Brian Wilson writing most of “Pet Sounds” while the rest of the band was off touring Japan, Smith went off on his own and wrote and demo-ed the entire album. He had decided he would make the recording a solo effort if his bandmates didn’t approve, but upon first listen, they enthusiastically decided to join in.

It was also during this time that founding Cure member Lol Tolhurst was drowning deep in the depths of alcohol addiction. The rest of the band had given Smith an ultimatum that he must get rid of Tolhurst, or they would find employment elsewhere. Tolhurst and Smith had been friends since the age of five, so it wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, Tolhurst was sacked and O’Donnell was made a full-fledged member of the band. The recording justifies the decision. Oddly enough, Tolhurst was credited with playing “other instrument” in the liner notes.

“Disintegration”  spawned three bonafide hits for the band. “Pictures of You”, “Lovesong” and “Lullaby” had chart success on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the world.

“Pictures of You” found Smith in a rare nostalgic mood. His home had recently suffered a fire where several possessions were destroyed, and he wrote the song while looking at photos of his wife that had been saved from the inferno.

His wife was also the reason for “Lovesong”. The tune was written as a wedding gift for Smith’s bride, Mary Poole, and is the closest thing to a normal, upbeat rock song that the release contains. It is only three and a half minutes long, has minimal keyboard flourishes, and just basically feels like a happy outlier on the album. The lyric “Whenever I’m alone with you / You make me feel like I am young again” proved evidence that Smith wasn’t looking forward to thirty. His sober vocalization of the lyric also made the title and intent seem a bit suspect. It must have been an unusual wedding!

The song that joined with a video to launch a million nightmares was “Lullaby”. The melody to “Lullaby” is both gorgeous and creepy at the same time, and the lyric is a musical horror story. Smith’s hushed vocal tells of a spider-man, who is looking to have him for dinner tonight, literally. The true meaning of the song has always been somewhat debatable. In interviews over the years, Smith has said both depression and addiction were “the spider-man”. The most likely influences for the song, however, were the bedtime stories that Smith’s dear old Dad told him as a child. Apparently, these tales often ended with a twisted, terrifying ending of some sort. Little Robert might have had some sleepless nights in his youth, but if “Lullaby” was the end result, it was worth it, at least for the rest of us! The music backing up the nocturnal attack is, in my opinion, the kind of stuff Mozart would have been writing if he was composing in 1989. I think the cut would have been a hit with no vocal whatsoever, but that’s just me.

“Closedown”, which tells of Smith’s issues with insomnia, drug ingestion, and advancing age, and “Last Dance” make up the rest of the first half of the disc. “Last Dance” is yet another mournful tune about a meeting with an old lover, who now generates no interest in the narrator at all. The pensive keyboards create the mood of uncomfortable tension Smith growls about, while the syncopated percussion created by Boris Williams keeps everything off balance.

While the first half of “Disintegration” wasn’t exactly a laugh-fest, the second half dozen tunes get darker and deeper into Smith’s depressive mood. “Fascination Street” uses an industrial plodding beat to tell the tale of a trip to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Not surprisingly. Mr. Smith found the experience less than fulfilling, and the melody gets that point across quite succinctly. His lyric only adds to the morose mood.

“Prayers For Rain” is the most musically experimental cut with tape loops being run backwards, upside down and any other way the band could figure to create a song so mournful that it is truly delicious. The emotional desolation of the lyric speaks of a longing for rain that would bring much-needed hope. The guitars by Smith and Porl Thompson are outstanding and continually do battle for the front stage with the sound effects and ominous synths. It is a horribly sad song, but oh so good to take in, which has always kind of been The Cure’s specialty.

The prayers must have worked, because the next cut, “The Same Deep Water As You” begins and ends with the sound of a torrential downpour. It is all about the keyboards here, as a virtual waterfall of synths creates a landscape of sound rarely equalled. The landscape offered isn’t exactly that of a Georgia O’Keefe New Mexico vista, but akin to the swirling, dark and foreboding background of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”.  Beautiful to admire, but also advancing a picture of dread and deep unhappiness.

The title tune follows, with a harder-edged sound and a repetitive drumbeat that mimics a heartbeat. Smith wrote the song as the basis for the entire album. His obvious dissatisfaction with the fame he never really wanted, his continued drug use and distressing romantic encounters all roll into one to produce a song of personal self-introspection with all the scars fully visible.

“Homesick” rearranges the sound again, with a dominant piano melody by O’Donnell being the most prominent part of another musical masterpiece. It would be easy, and almost advisable to pay minimal attention to Smith’s muted and melancholy lyric and just listen to the music, which is a milestone in a wealth of distinguished compositions by the band. There are a lot of groups from the era that would have offered up their firstborn to create a song like this.

Long ago, a sardonic reviewer said that “Untitled”, the album closer, was a song so depressing that Smith couldn’t even give it a name. That would be a bit harsh, in my opinion. Yes, it is not a happy song, (surprise!) but the poetic lyric of an unrequited love brought about by insecurity and fear is actually one of the best Smith has written from where I sit. The music also isn’t nearly as depressing as other cuts, with a wistful feeling of hope woven into its structure. It is a great way to end the album and not push the listener completely over the edge.

The Cure’s influence on modern music cannot be overstated. They broke out of the post-punk goth band mold to virtually create the alt-rock genre, while simultaneously building a sound unique enough to be impervious to lesser copies. When you hear a Cure song, you instantly know who it is. It is really a bit of a shame that Smith’s fear of never creating his best after thirty came to be a bit prophetic. The band still creates music and has toured for decades, but “Disintegration” will always be considered their crowning achievement. 

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
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