Moving from Sinatra to Sonic Youth is like . . . cue Rod Serling . . . “You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”
Frank Sinatra has been lauded in many quarters as the greatest American singer of them all; the vocalists on Sonic Youth are no better than the vocalists you’d hear at the karaoke bar. Sinatra worked largely with pre-existing material; songs so familiar that they are known as “standards.” I would hazard a guess that the majority of Sinatra’s audience wouldn’t even recognize Sonic Youth’s output as “songs.” Sinatra’s material remained well within the boundaries of classical tonality; Sonic Youth embraced atonality and dissonance.
Sinatra could have never gotten his head around Kim Gordon’s admission in Girl in a Band: “I’ve never thought of myself as a singer with a good voice, or even as a musician.” “Then get your ass off the stage!” Ol’ Blue Eyes might have replied. Remember, Sinatra initially thought Elvis and The Beatles represented the destruction of human civilization, and though he warmed to them later, I can’t imagine an alternative universe where there’s an album called Frank Sinatra Sings Sonic Youth.
Sinatra couldn’t read music but could follow a score intuitively and chose to undergo training in vocal technique; I could find no evidence that any member of Sonic Youth received formal (i. e., classical) music training. Oddly enough, the one thing Sonic Youth had in common with classical composers was the feature that has most frequently earned them the label “innovative.” The technique is so common in classical music that it sports an Italian moniker: scordatura.
That’s what y’all call “alternate tunings.”
Some pretty big names produced compositions employing scordatura on the string instruments common to an orchestra: Vivaldi, Haydn, Telemann, Paganini, Saint-Saëns, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartók, Strauss, Bach, Mozart, Hindemith. Beyond the violin family and orchestral music, lutists and guitarists have been using non-standard tunings for centuries. Alternate tuning was also common in blues, with Skip James famously employing open D minor tuning. Several musicians who preceded Sonic Youth also regularly employed unusual tunings: Curtis Mayfield, Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell . . . just to name a few.
Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were certainly aware of Joni Mitchell’s offbeat tunings, counting themselves among her many admirers. Ranaldo also spent some pre-Sonic Youth time with Glenn Branca, an experimentalist in both theatre and music who made extensive use of noise and alternate tunings (Moore also acknowledges Branca’s influence). The fact that they weren’t classically-trained worked to their advantage, as classical training would have infused their brains with a right way/wrong way paradigm that might have closed their ears to possibilities outside “acceptable” boundaries. In addition to a slew of alternate tunings that eventually required them to leave room for fifty guitars on the tour bus, they also made frequent use of “prepared guitars,” a curious term that doesn’t capture the sometimes gruesome manipulation of strings and fretboard by using that territory as a percussion instrument and/or placing various objects on or under the strings to change the instrument’s timbre. Thurston Moore explained Sonic Youth’s approach to guitar in a 2014 piece in New York Magazine: “It was about creating your own language on the instrument that had all this tradition to it, without denying the tradition. But the technique of the tradition wasn’t necessary for you to create.”
On top of all that manipulation, Sonic Youth valued noise and distortion. “Extreme noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing,” wrote Kim Gordon from the perspective of the performer, but such cacophony can be equally therapeutic for the listener. When I’m stressed out, I don’t increase my consumption of cigarettes or guzzle bottles of booze—I crank up my guitar and amp, make a lot of fucking noise and feel a better person for it. Noise is a way to express visceral emotions that can’t be reached or explained through the left brain path.
So . . . we have all kinds of alternate tunings, some deliberately designed to create dissonance (all available for viewing on The Sonic Youth Tuning Tutorial), guitars tortured and twisted out of shape to form new sounds and . . . a whole lot of noise. As is true with the cookies you bake, opinions on whether or not the recipe works will vary with taste. What I find most engaging about Sonic Youth are the strong motifs created by those guitars, motifs characterized by surprisingly catchy melodies and ear-tingling harmonies. The noise serves three functions: one, to provide contrast to the motifs; two, to use sound in a way that mirrors the emotions we can’t put into words; and three, to reflect a simple truth about modern life: it’s a noisy experience.
Later when people would ask Thurston or me why Sonic Youth’s music was so dissonant, the answer was always the same: our music was realistic, and dynamic, because life was that way, filled with extremes.
. . . The way the band composed songs was pretty much always the same. Thurston or Lee would usually sing the poppy, more melodic things from riffs one of them wrote; I sang the weirder, more abstract things that came out of all of us playing together and rearranging until everything jelled. My voice has always had a fairly limited range, and when you’re writing a melody, you tend to write it for your own voice. Lee, on the other hand, usually brought in songs that were complete and ready to go, then we layered dissonance over.
Gordon, Kim. Girl in a Band (p. 91, 145). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition.
Of course, Sonic Youth formed and developed their signature sound in New York City, the ne plus ultra urban experience, a place renowned for its noise level, eclectic art community and willingness to entertain the extremes. Although New York has produced its share of commercially successful musical artists, when I think “New York rock music,” the names that come to mind are the influencers: Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, New York Dolls, The Ramones, Lou Reed, Television, Talking Heads. I don’t think it’s an accident that most of those names had some form of connection with the visual arts (including fashion). Most people know about the Warhol-Velvet Underground partnership; Patti Smith was a photographer, painter and performance artist before entering the music scene. Sonic Youth formed an equally strong connection to the visual arts community via Kim Gordon’s multi-faceted work in the field. “All the artists were really involved with what was going on in the music scene. It was really cross-discipline there, as far as the visual artists and the music went,” noted Thurston Moore in the above-mentioned interview. Beyond the obvious manifestation of the connection in their cover art, Sonic Youth was imbued with artistic sensibility from the get-go, and they too would become influencers. Along with the Pixies, they shaped the sound of ’90s music and beyond.
Such is the upside of working in New York. The downside is the tendency to become disciples of the New-York-Is-the-Center-of-the Universe sect, which in Sonic Youth manifests itself in lyrics understandable only to those who are part of the New York scene. This myopic parochialism is fortunately limited to a couple of songs on the album; for the most part, the music is interesting enough to hold your attention. Truth is, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive, universally-accepted interpretation of any Sonic Youth lyrics, as they tend towards the surreal and expressionistic.
Daydream Nation was the album that lifted Sonic Youth out of obscurity into semi-obscurity, garnering just the right amount of attention to qualify them as a musical force without the distracting hoo-hah that comes with identification as the Next Big Thing. It also earned them a major label deal, one of those good news/bad news developments. Better distribution meant more reliable access to a wider audience (Daydream Nation didn’t break the US charts) but I think they lost some of their edge on the more popular albums like Goo and Dirty. My favorite period in their chronology is the period that includes the first three albums featuring Steve Shelley on drums: EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation. Though most of the attention is focused on the guitars and Kim Gordon, Shelley gave them a solid hardcore rhythmic foundation that their earliest efforts lacked, giving their music greater cohesion and reach.
That cohesion is quite obvious in the brilliantly-constructed opener, “Teen Age Riot.” The shorter version that most are familiar with makes for a cute little single I suppose, but eliminating the introduction and going straight to the guitar riff also rids the song of its climactic power . . . like starting off a fuck at full thrust without even a “Hello . . . and you are . . . ?”
Foreplay matters, people!
The foreplay in this context consists of a lo-fi, low volume dreamscape where the soundtrack consists of a simple strummed riff of Em-D variants, a few warm-up tosses from Steve Shelley and Kim Gordon speaking in fragments of consciousness as her voice moves across the soundscape . . . “you’re it . . . no, you’re it . . . say it don’t spray it . . . spirit desire . . . we will fall . . . spirit desire . . . ” The tentative nature of the music and lyrics gives the impression of musicians in exploration mode, waiting for something to click. As Kim gradually vacates the scene, Steve Shelley cues the end of the guitar riff with a simple skip beat, the chord fades out and WHAM! Spine-tingling distorted fretboard action on Guitar 1! Cymbal crash triggers Guitar 2 to add low harmony! Steve keeps the beat on the sticks as the guitarists battle it out! Crash! One last round of semi-stop time for the guitars then YES! Drive this fucker home, Stevie baby!
Just before Thurston arrives to present the lyrics in his unmelodic but not unpleasant voice, the rhythmic structure changes to a pattern of all-out drive for four measures and a letting-off-the-gas skip beat for two. The contrast has the effect of intensifying the drive, much like a man who varies his fuck pattern with finesse, making the experience all the more exciting (if you’re offended by my language in this play-by-play, please note that the tagline for this blog is “music reviews with a touch of erotica” and get over it). None of this would have been possible without a solid and sensitive drummer freeing the guitars to focus on melody and harmony, so extra kudos to Mr. Shelley here and throughout the entire album.
I suggest that listeners interpret Thurston’s explanation of the lyrics (“It was actually about appointing J Mascis as our de facto alternative dream president”) in the broader context of the times. At that point in American history, voting-age Americans had become smitten with a doddering old fool determined to take American back into its glorious, fictitious past. Given the choice between “Morning in America” and the relatively obscure but superb guitarist and leader of Dinosaur (Jr.), a guy who comes ” . . . running in on platform shoes/With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue,” I would have voted for Mascis in a heartbeat had I not been seven years old at the time. Labeling Mascis as “our de facto alternative dream president” tells us that Thurston was not serious about a third-party campaign but substituted Bob Dylan’s nihilism (“Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters”) for a bit of D. H. Lawrence: “If you make a revolution, make it for fun, don’t make it in ghastly seriousness, don’t do it in deadly earnest, do it for fun.” The opening couplet encourages listeners to treat the general consensus as to what constitutes “reality” with due skepticism, opening the door to new perspectives:
Everybody’s talking ’bout the stormy weather
And what’s a man to do, well, work out whether it’s true
After several verses where Thurston plays out his fantasy, we’re treated to an extended reprise of the dominant motifs, featuring cheery little riffs in a G major scale brightened by contrasting tuning (GABDEG for Thurston, GGDDGG for Lee), a more prominent role for Kim Gordon’s bass and a combined deluge of rock ‘n’ roll power. I really wish Thurston would have ended his narrative with the verse immediately following the instrumental passage, as it speaks to the low-quality, low-energy choices we’re often forced to make between Politician A and Politician B:
We know it’s down
We know it’s bound to be loose
Everybody’s sound is around it
Everybody wants to be proud to choose
However you choose to interpret the lyrics, “Teen Age Riot” is a thrilling musical experience and a great way to kick off the festivities.
For “Silver Rocket,” Thurston changes his tuning to ACCGG#C while Lee complements with the more straightforward AAEEAA. The G# appears to be the sore thumb in the lot, but it’s really just a shift from the minor pentatonic to blues scale (the “standard” chords for the song would be Am/F-C/C/Eb), a clue that you can expect something more dissonant than “Teen Age Riot.” The song proper is a punk-influenced minor-key rocker marked by strong drive and phallic allusions (the two are hardly mutually exclusive), but the most notable feature of the piece is the bridge. Here’s a description lifted from Christopher Robe’s scholarly contribution, “Pop Avant-Garde: A Critical Inquiry into the Various Performances of Sonic Youth“:
For the most part, “Silver Rocket’s” verses sound like a typical rock song. But the bridge begins with all three instruments sustaining the last chord of the verse. One guitar plays erratically, only partially applying pressure to the strings to maintain a chord so that its notes bleed together forming metallic noise. The other guitar maintains strumming the chord and then slides down the fret as the chord dissolves into peripheral noises of scratching strings and chirping noises. The bass holds the same note throughout the bridge. The music remains suspended in time as the instruments explore the musical resonance of this specific chord. No longer concerned with maintaining a rhythm (the drums have stopped and only cymbals accent the discord), the instruments are free to musically branch-out in undirected ways, creating sounds that are unfamiliar to the ear.
I would add that given the strength of the build and the careful attention to dynamics, what may sound like “noise” was definitely hand-crafted and intentional, making for a curiously fascinating experience in sound.
Kim Gordon wrote this about “The Sprawl”:
When I wrote the lyrics for “The Sprawl,” a song from Daydream, I took on a character, a voice within a song. The whole time I was writing it, I was thinking back on what it felt like being a teenager in Southern California, paralyzed by the still, unending sprawl of L.A., feeling all alone on the sidewalk, the pavement’s plainness so dull and ugly it almost made me nauseous, the sun and good weather so assembly-line unchanging it made my whole body tense. The nutmeg headband of smog floating above my hometown reminded me of Fiskadoro, as if L.A. were already surviving its own nuclear fallout.
Gordon, Kim. Girl in a Band (p. 162-3). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition.
Someone’s confused here . . . Kim mentions Denis Johnson’s book Fiskadoro; the Wikipedia article on Daydream Nation and NME claim the song was inspired by another Johnson book, The Stars at Noon, AND by William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy . . . which Kim doesn’t mention in her book (though she does mention another Gibson book as the inspiration for the much later song, “Pattern Recognition”). While the lyrics could describe a hundred cities in the USA, the attitude she maintains throughout the song is definitely bad-ass L. A. teenager (who are much more common than the Valley Girls), so I’m going with Kim here.
Her attitude is matched by the angst-laden music: distorted twin guitars alternating between a steady, rush-hour theme and layered darkness in the “Come on down to the store/You can buy some more, more, more” verses. I love how Thurston and Lee give themselves some space to meld the two themes in the instrumental breaks, especially when they shift to the dirge-like passage in the second half of the seven-plus-minutes piece—the chords they create, combining slide, arpeggio and duet harmonies are quite striking.
Kim doesn’t leave any clues in her book regarding “‘Cross the Breeze,” only mentioning it as part of a playlist. I had to laugh at the Wikipedia claim that the song “features some of Gordon’s most intense singing.” Shit, man, Kim Gordon rarely “sings,” and doesn’t even come close to forming a melody on “‘Cross the Breeze.” As noted by Christopher Alexander in a piece on cokemachineglow, “the song is an exercise in tension with no release,” and Kim’s vocal is designed to contribute to that overwhelming tension. The listener has about thirty seconds of arpeggiated loveliness in the intro before the guitars and drums launch into a high-speed thrash peppered with overpowering cinematic motifs. Adding to the tension is the conflict inherent in the tunings: CCEBGD paired with EEEEF#F#. While a guitarist can choose pretty, euphonious notes in any tuning (as they do in the introduction), this combination encourages a sonic clash. Kim enters here to do her thing, the tension in her voice rising as Thurston and Lee throw in conflicting bits of dissonance. When the thrash returns with its strong motifs, if you feel like your heart is about to explode, join the club—the sensation is exciting but disturbing, yet I feel strangely disappointed when they back off and slow things down in the fade—kinda like how a roller coaster addict might feel when the ride is over and it’s closing time at the amusement park. I have no frigging idea what the song is “about,” and couldn’t care less—the satisfaction comes from the strength of the musical composition.
Lee Ranaldo gives us a sampling of his everyman’s voice in “Eric’s Trip,” allegedly based on a monologue from Warhol’s “The Chelsea Girls.” Following the first four explorations, this parochial piece comes across as rather conventional in comparison and as such, doesn’t grab me in the least. My ears perk up for “Total Trash,” in large part because Thurston Moore sounds so much like Lou Reed that I had the urge to go back and check the album credits to see if I missed something. It starts out as a bouncy little number with a smoothly-executed key change for the verses; after two verses, all hell breaks loose for several measures, the headphones filling with blessed distortion and some nice bass runs from Kim. Things really go bonkers in the fade where the dissonance from both guitars becomes more pronounced and the sounds they unleash include reproductions of comb kazoos and fingernails-on-chalkboard. There is enough probable cause here to charge Moore and Ranaldo for assault on their guitars, and as the beat collapses into chaos, you get the sense that you’ve walked into the musical equivalent of a funhouse where all the mirrors have been smashed to smithereens but still cling to the walls. For some unknown reason, the tempo becomes rather draggy in the last go-round of the lyrics, with Thurston sounding somewhere between depressed and out of gas. Except for the aerodynamic resistance at the end, I rather like the song, and once again, I have no idea what the hell Thurston is talking about.
I have a better idea of what Lee Ranaldo is getting at in “Hey, Joni,” and despite the claims of such “trustworthy” sources as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, Lee confirmed in a 2014 interview that the song has nothing to do with Joni Mitchell.
You’d think that people who get paid to write music reviews would at least have the decency to get their facts straight.
“When we were writing that song, the idea was to re-approach the song ‘Hey Joe’ from a female perspective,” said Lee. Okay, let’s run with that. Although the narrative isn’t entirely clear (no surprise there), we do know there are two characters: Joni and a male narrator. When the story begins, the narrator is urging Joni to put the past behind her just like he has. The narrator then reminds her of earlier days when both shared “high ideals” and how he helped Joni overcome a serious case of uptightness in the process. “That time in the trees, we broke that vice/We took some steps and now/We can’t think twice” describes a seminal event that led to a down period for Joni . . . but we really have no idea what that seminal event was:
Shots ring out from the center of an empty field
Joni’s in the tall grass
She’s a beautiful mental jukebox
A sailboat explosion
A snap of electric whipcrack
She’s not thinking about the future
She’s not spinning her wheels
She doesn’t think at all about the past
She thinking long and hard
About that high wild sound
And wondering will it last?
Hey Joni, put it all behind you
If Joni followed the pattern of “Hey, Joe,” then she shot some two-timin’ bastard and somehow got away with it, with only post-traumatic stress syndrome to worry about. In the end, the narrator urges her to forget both past and future, then takes her on a non-linear trip through the years . . . almost like he’s trying to erase her memories through hypnotism. What’s going on with this guy? Supportive platonic partner? Master manipulator? Willing accomplice to murder? We can ponder the mystery while listening to “Providence,” a brief intermission featuring Thurston on lo-fi piano and one-time collaborator Mike Watt on the answering machine . . . but I think “Hey Joni” belongs in the cold case files right next to “McAllister, Billy Joe (Tallahatchie Bridge Incident).” Hats and bra off to Lee for an interesting, provocative story and suitably passion-laden vocal.
Following a perfectly lovely arpeggiated guitar arrangement that bears a passing resemblance to “Dear Prudence” before branching into more interesting territory (using the dissonant tuning featured in “Silver Rocket”), “Candle” then changes gears to a more insistent rhythm tightly executed in 10/4 and 9/4 time. As far as introductions go, it ranks right up there with “Teen Age Riot.” Unfortunately, the introduction turns out to be window dressing as the band shifts back to 4/4 time and Thurston delivers a rather lethargic vocal in support of extremely opaque lyrics that may or may not have something to do with drug use (see Emily Langerholc’s curriculum notes on Rebel Music Teacher). I can also do without “Rain King,” Lee Ranaldo’s homage to the obscure Cleveland avant-garde band Pere Ubu.
Kim Gordon returns for “Kissability,” almost forty years ahead of her time. The “shocking” revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood predators came as no surprise to Kim Gordon, who probably heard about the employment norms practiced in the entertainment industry while growing up in L. A. What’s shocking is that the song drew little attention then or now, despite the vivid pictures of objectification and abuse:
Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me
Yr so good you could go far
I’ll put you in a movie, don’t you wanna
You could be a star
You could go far
You’ve got twistability
You fly hard, don’t you wanna
You’ve got kissability
You could be a star, it ain’t hard
Yr driving me crazy, you smell so sick
Yr driving me crazy, give us a kiss
Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me
Yr so soft, you make me hard
Here the “Silver Rocket” tuning is deployed to create a thoroughly creepy soundscape that captures the rising fear of the wannabe actress caught in the spider’s web. I can’t listen to “Kissability” without feeling sick and angry about the abuse, the normalization of the abuse and the years of shoulder-shrugging that accompanied it, so on that level, it’s an extremely effective piece of music.
Daydream Nation ends with a three-part trilogy consisting of “A) The Wonder,” “B) Hyperstation,” and Z) “Eliminator, Jr.” The first two sections form a continuous piece using the dissonant tuning combination of GGDDD#D# (Thurston) and GGC#DGG (Lee) and a cornucopia of diverse, often harsh guitar sounds. The third section feels more like a coda where Lee raises the odd C# to a D and the style shifts to Z. Z. Top (no shit). A shorthand description of the lyrics might be “an expressionist view of Manhattan (particularly lower Manhattan) in the late ’80s, painted in dark, Pollockian tones.” My favorite verse comes at the end of “B) Hyperstation”:
Smashed up against a car at 3am
The kids dressed up for basketball
Beat me in my head
There’s bum trash in my hall
And my place is ripped
I totaled another amp, I’m callin’ in sick
It’s an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation
Sticking with shorthand, I interpret the closing couplet as a valid psychological response to the sensory overload of New York City: there’s too much going on to take it all in. Hence the tendency to zone out, a psychological mechanism that also softens the impact of the uglier side of the city. The effect of the coda—where Kim Gordon unleashes waves of rage at Preppy Killer Robert Chambers—is to remind the listener that no matter how much you’d like to deny its existence, the ugliness is still out there.
I’m going to spare you from a blow-by-blow account of this fourteen-minute piece, but as I listened to the trilogy several times, studying how the unusual harmonies and disparate sounds created by the guitars come together with the Shelley-Gordon rhythm section to produce a well-designed structure anchored by strong motifs, I was struck by how the gestalt had a (gasp!) classical feel to it . . . Then I remembered Beethoven’s famous comment: “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself.”
Ludwig, baby, you had no idea.
As I was reminded after reading the Aaron Cooper-Kendon Luscher I (Don’t) Hate That post on Bearded Gentlemen Music, there aren’t too many bands as polarizing as The Cure.
Well, there’s Oasis. I happen to like Oasis very much, but I can understand how people can be turned off by the Noel-Liam bullshit and their unbridled cockiness. I dismiss the complaints lodged by Oasis-hating Baby Boomers who see them as a.) third-class Beatles imitators or b.) having Beatles-level pretensions. The Gallagher Brothers have openly acknowledged their admiration for The Fab Four, and whenever an old fart tries to tell me they’re trying to imitate The Beatles, I respond coolly, calmly and confidently: “Show me the harmonies.”
It’s harder to nail down why some people abhor The Cure. I’m sure there are a few insecure male assholes who don’t like guys wearing make-up, but that demographic doesn’t seem to be too vocal about it. There are people who can’t stand the sound of Robert Smith’s voice, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Robert Plant is considered one of the greatest lead vocalists in rock history, but I can only stomach him for about five seconds. The two most common charges brought against The Cure are:
- They’re too goddamned depressing.
- They’re too goddamned emotional.
They’re too goddamned depressing. It’s true that their earlier “gothic rock” albums were rather gloomy affairs, but you have to consider the world their generation inherited: “NO FUTURE!” Whaddya want, Tony Orlando and Dawn? Those early 80s albums were released during a period of massive unemployment and Margaret Thatcher. That’s enough to depress anyone with a brain. Robert Smith and The Cure chose to explore the phenomena of fragile relationships and existential isolation in the context of a world that forever seems on the brink of self-destruction. That’s not depressing—that’s reality. According to WHO, there are 300 million people who suffer from depression, and Robert Smith happens to be one of them. Depression, like most mental health issues, remains a dirty little secret that makes it all the more difficult to control; hearing someone acknowledge that reality in song forms the all-important message, “You are not alone.” If The Cure sounds depressing to you, you may want to get an emotional intelligence checkup and ask the doctor to run some tests on your empathy levels. I suspect that part of what drives this criticism is the expectation among too large a swathe of the human race that music is something that should cheer you up and make you feel good. Truth: Life is wonderful. Truth: Life sucks. Wait! The ghost of Frank Sinatra just dropped in to leave us a message: “You can’t have one without the other.” Get over it.
They’re too goddamned emotional. Yes, occasionally Robert Smith lapses into the “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” excess that made T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound hate Shelley with a passion. Sometimes his lyrics feel emotionally indulgent and fail to empathetically connect with the listener. Robert Smith is an introverted, emotional-intuitive kind of guy, so you’re going to get some excessive bleeding from time to time. What I find most impressive about his work is that he is a man who openly shares his emotions, something little boys growing up in masculine societies like the USA and UK are programmed to avoid. The world is in deep doo-doo right now because the dominant players are men whose only recognizable emotion is anger and their M. O. in response to a problem is a defensive denial of any trace of vulnerability so that no one can call them “soft.” Personally, I think a lot of men are confused about the hard-soft thing, believing “hard” is always good and “soft” is always bad. Let me simplify things. Hard cock = good. Hard soul = bad. Soft cock = bad, but I still love you and don’t worry, you’ll get another turn at the plate. Soft soul = beautiful.
Robert Smith had been openly encouraging displays of male vulnerability from the get-go, starting with “Boys Don’t Cry” way back in 1979. Ten years later he was feeling vulnerable again because he was about to turn thirty and believed that all the great rock masterpieces were written before the composers exited their twenties. Though his hypothesis pretty much holds up (depending on how you define a masterpiece), I still thought his dread of turning thirty was a silly, culturally-induced overreaction until I read a quote of his published on Don’t Forget the Songs 365: “The essence of this album is the disgust concerning the loss of the ability to feel profound feelings when you grow older. That’s the disintegration I mean. I’m concerned about it, just as about everybody else I know of my age.” While I personally know several exceptions to that hypothesis, I do know a lot of people (especially those in business) who should be called out for this tendency in strong, Vonnegutian language: “You’ve crawled up your own asshole and died!” Burdened with greed, debts, responsibilities and the nine-to-five, people tend to get serious, and when people get serious, their emotional range tends to shrink to include only reactive anger, frustration and exhaustion.
The approach of what he considered old age triggered Smith’s depression, which in turn gave his writing a sense of urgency peppered with pessimism. He felt very strongly that if he was going to write his magnum opus before the clock ran out he needed to move away from the pop orientation that marked most of the singles as well as the previous album (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me) and play to his strengths instead. “Write about your experience, write about what you know,” says the archetypal English professor at the start of Creative Writing 101, and Robert Smith experienced the world through the dual lenses of emotional sensitivity and depression.
The result was Disintegration. Most critics (and Smith, to some degree) viewed the sonic flip-flop as a return to the sound of that goth classic, Pornography. Er . . . no. Pornography is an aggressive, in-your-face experience that never lets up; Disintegration is more reflective, more sonically diverse and frequently quite beautiful. As is often the case when attempting to establish atmosphere, the chords are relatively simple throughout, lightly enhanced through slight variants and different voicings. Though there will always be a tendency for some people to interpret Cure music through a unifocal lens of dour and morose, the songs on Disintegration feature a wide range of profound human emotions, and to appreciate that aspect of Disintegration, I would urge listeners to rid themselves of the belief that feelings have to be “either/or.” Haven’t you ever been happy and sad at the same time? Or excited and scared? Why do we cry when the movie has a happy ending? Disintegration is best appreciated when you can hold the notion of simultaneous opposing emotions.
So let’s get on with it! Please note that I’m reviewing the original vinyl release that does not include the bonus tracks on the Elektra CD issued in the United States (“Last Dance” and “Homesick”).
“Plainsong” serves as the overture to Disintegration, establishing the overall mood and tone of the work. Following a rising chorus of cascading wind chimes, a cymbal crash snaps you out of your brief reverie and you immediately find yourself enveloped in the circumambient sound of grand synthesizer and deep, reverberating bass that form the memorable central motif. Though the sheet music will tell you that “Plainsong” is structured around standard pop chords (C, F, G, Am and Dm) played in 4/4 time, the rhythm is anything but metronomic due to a composition that mingles three distinct rhythmic variations: Simon Gallup’s expanding whole-note bass part to establish the foundation; Roger O’Donnell’s use of frequent dotted notes and ties to force the melody beyond the measure; and Boris Williams’ syncopated drum attack that moves on and off the expected beat. The combination of all that rhythmic tension creates leading notes and beats that make for a subtly thrilling musical experience, dramatic without going overboard and surprisingly uplifting. After several measures of that glorious sound, a guitar solo is introduced to the mix, adding a fourth rhythmic pattern featuring bends and miniature slides. Your initial impression is “detuned guitar run through a flanger and a tonal-shifting pedal,” but nope . . . a reliable thread on Gearslutz identifies the instrument as a Fender Bass VI played high up on the fretboard using the fifth and sixth strings. As noted in the thread, this approach gives the solo a unique timbre that I would describe as magical and melancholy, words that also describe the overall feel of the piece. If you still have a hard time believing it’s a bass, watch last year’s live performance at the Sydney Opera House.
The 6-string bass solo begins as a counterpoint to the main melody produced by the synth, but eventually and oh so smoothly introduces fragments of the main melody into the mix while the synthesizer takes a short break. This is the cue for Robert Smith to enter with the lead vocal at the 2:40 mark and your first impulse might be to reach for the volume knob so you can actually hear him. Leave the knob alone. “But I can’t understand what he’s saying!” you protest. LEAVE THE FUCKING KNOB ALONE AND TAKE IN THE FULL EXPERIENCE. The synthesizer now takes center stage with that powerful, alluring motif while the human voice is reduced to a series of faint echoes, slightly distorted snippets of human fragility. You hear fragments of words and partial phrases—“dark,” “rain” “wind,” “end of the world,” “cold,”—and get the impression that the voice is struggling to make itself heard through the distorted meteorology of a storm. As the six-string bass leads us into the fade, shimmery sounds blend with synthesizer and bass to gently guide the music to a tear-inspiring crescendo.
Okay, NOW you can look at the lyrics:
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
Well, there you have it—you really didn’t need to read all that, did you? The message was pretty much in the music. The lyrics do illuminate the tendency of Brits to engage in black humor, which would have been difficult to replicate musically within the context of an essentially beautiful composition. The mystery for most people is why Smith’s companion smiles when it’s all dark and dreary. Lucky for you, I have relevant experience in the matter. This is the picture my father selected for the post he wrote about me a few years back:
What am I wearing? Every piece of winter clothing I owned over three layers of whatever I had in the suitcase. What’s that white stuff? Snow! What’s that on my puss? A smile! Yes, I’m smiling, but beneath that smile is a latent murderess plotting the best way to croak my parents for convincing me to accompany them on a winter trip to the frozen tundra of the Midwest so my father could go to a fucking football game! In addition to feeling my sensitive skin crack in a million places due to the relentless cold, I’m feeling rage, resentment and . . . revenge! Then why was I smiling? Because it’s exciting to experience things I don’t normally experience, and feeling snow crunch under my feet was weird and wonderful for this California girl! I hated and loved every minute at the same time! I repeat: feelings are not “either/or.” Human beings are capable of experiencing multiple, contradictory emotions in the same moment, and that capability allows me to feel the range of emotions expressed in “Plainsong,” where the music inspires melancholy, fragility, appreciation (of the sheer beauty), curiosity, and somehow . . . validation . . . for being human . . . for being vulnerable . . . for being full of contradictions.
The song that followed “Plainsong” had to be somewhat more upbeat while not straying too far beyond the established mood, and “Pictures of You,” featuring a solid rock beat integrating the chimes, shimmery synth and the now-familiar phenomenon of a six-string bass guitar, certainly fits the bill by retaining textural continuity. The deviations from “Plainsong” are equally important, particularly the presence of an additional guitar and a generally assertive, passionate vocal from Robert Smith. The structure of the song is built around a drone in the key of A, established largely in the six verses that employ an A major/D major chord pattern. Six verses with the same chord pattern might seem like a recipe for dullsville, but Smith takes advantage of the melodic freedom inherent in the drone to vary the melody as well as the length of the verses. While the song has no chorus, there is a bridge after verse five where the pattern shifts to E major-D major to highlight the ever-present sense of “if only” in a Robert Smith composition. Robert! Remember the immortal words of Piaf! Je ne regrette RIEN! And though the seventh verse seems pretty much repeats the baseline melody, the chord pattern shifts to include a B minor chord in the second position and an A major voicing with C# at the root. This balance of stability (the drone) and variation (subtle changes) results in a song that flows so beautifully that when it’s over it hardly feels like you spent seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds of your life listening to it.
The lyrics take on greater importance than they did in “Plainsong,” with Robert Smith’s photograph-inspired reverie traversing the vital moments in a cherished relationship now lost. The first verse establishes both the power and danger of photographic memories:
I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel
As alluring and comforting as an old picture might be, a photograph cannot possibly be “real” because human beings change; relationships often founder when one or both parties hang on to a picture of the other that exists only in a glorified past. The next four verses all begin with the word “remembering,” and it is only natural that most enduring images of a relationship are moments of shared vulnerability when the mask falls and the pain of inauthenticity bursts from within:
Remembering you running soft through the night
You were bigger and brighter and whiter than snow
And screamed at the make-believe
Screamed at the sky
And you finally found all your courage
To let it all go
Robert’s “if only” regret has to do with his inability to find the right words to connect with his companion in that moment of vulnerability. While I think his desire to help is admirable, self-blame isn’t likely to help matters much. In the end, I think Smith realizes that his pictures were the obstacle—his picture of himself as a wannabe savior and his picture of her as a person who needed what he had to offer:
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to feel you deep in my heart
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to never feel the breaking apart
All my pictures of you
Yes, “all my pictures of you” proved to be the problem.
“Closedown” continues the instrumental pattern of synth-bass-six-string bass and the musical pattern of a drone in the key of A, with B minor supplying the complement instead of D major. What’s different is the urgency of the rhythm section, with Boris Williams and Simon Gallup multiplying the beats to provide tension-filled contrast to the longer notes from the synth. The urgency expressed in the music is reflected in Smith’s limited lyrics, with the opening line “I’m running out of time” reminding the listener that the motivation behind Disintegration was his fear of getting old and cynical (or, “Out of step and closing down,” as he puts it in the second line). “Closedown” feels like the explanatory soliloquy you find in many a Shakespeare play—the extended aside that reveals the character’s true motives. As such, it serves as an essential piece of the composition.
I’m not so sure I’d use the word “essential” to describe “Lovesong,” though. The only virtue of the song that I can identify is that it puts those people who define The Cure as dark and depressing in somewhat of a bind, but other than the satisfaction of that “nyah, nyah” moment, it’s pretty much a garden-variety love song designed to appeal to the sentimental masses. The music is “wimpy 1980’s disco,” best served when the dancers need a break from the fake intensity of “Stayin’ Alive.” In the interest of fully disclosing any biases, my favorite love song is the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” the very opposite of the wet noodle sound of “Lovesong.”
Whether the song is an anti-tribute to Smith’s “druggy past” (not so much of a past, since it was reported he was using psychedelics during the development of Disintegration) or memories of a recurring nightmare (somewhat more likely), Robert Smith’s performance on “Lullaby” confirms his thespian ability to enter the soul of a character—in this case, a little boy who draws enormous pleasure from the fantasy of being eaten by an enormous spider. This isn’t as far-fetched a fantasy as it seems: a quick thumb-through of the endings to the tales peddled by the Brothers Grimm will tell you that many “bedtime stories” were designed to scare the shit out of kids so they would be more likely to obey their sadistic parents. From Wikipedia:
The Grimms’ legacy contains legends, novellas, and folk stories, the vast majority of which were not intended as children’s tales. Von Armin was deeply concerned about the content of some of the tales, such as those that showed children being eaten, and suggested that they be removed. Instead, the brothers added an introduction with cautionary advice that parents steer children toward age-appropriate stories. Despite von Armin’s unease, none of the tales were eliminated from the collection, in the brothers’ belief that all the tales were of value and reflected inherent cultural qualities. Furthermore, the stories were didactic in nature at a time when discipline relied on fear, according to scholar Linda Dégh, who explains that tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” were written as “warning tales” for children.
It could have been worse, I guess—several of the originals were sanitized for publication. The original “Snow White” features the Queen ordering a lackey to kill the kid and bring home her lungs and liver so she could feast on them; “The Goose Girl” describes a “servant being stripped naked and pushed into a barrel studded with sharp nails pointing inwards and then rolled down the street.” Smith seems to be more of a Grimm purist than a Disney re-inventor, and the delight he expresses when the spider’s “arms are all around me and his tongue in my eyes,” captures the thrill that many people experience during a great horror flick. What really excites the kid is he can tune in tomorrow, same time, same place and watch it all over again!
And I know that in the morning I will wake up
In the shivering cold
And the Spiderman is always hungry
I guess when FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” half the country replied, “But we like to be scared!” Talk about holding contradictory feelings! “Lullaby” not only reaffirms that theme but does so with tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Most of the music follows another two-chord pattern (C# to A) with a shift to F# minor to A major in the coda, but the guitar plays the A7 chord, adding a touch of laid-back blues to caution the listener not to take the song too seriously.
“Fascination Street” is Robert Smith’s ironic ode to Bourbon Street. “I was getting ready to go there and I thought: what the fuck 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” (Songfacts). Well, if your idea of a perfect evening is watching drunken broads display their tits on balconies and drinking Jello shooters, Bourbon Street is a plausible possibility, but Robert Smith doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. What he does manage to do with assistance from his mates is create an edgy, heart-throbbing soundscape held together by one of the most memorable bass parts on record. While the synths and guitars add the colorful decor, Simon Gallup’s bass captures the delightfully naughty motivations of the gawkers and barhoppers as they stroll down the street where anything goes. Smith does an equally commendable job of identifying the dynamics that drive this burst of carpe diem, a desire to let the puritanic world go to hell while also making sure you’re suitably dressed for the occasion:
Yeah I like you in that
Like I like you to scream
But if you open your mouth
Then I can’t be responsible
For quite what goes in
Or to care what comes out
So just pull on your hair
Just pull on your pout
And let’s move to the beat
Like we know that it’s over
If you slip going under
Slip over my shoulder
So just pull on your face
Just pull on your feet
And let’s hit opening time
Down on Fascination Street
Confirming the suspicions of long-time readers of this blog, yes, “Fascination Street” appears frequently on my fuck playlists.
My nominee for best intro on Disintegration goes to the oft-ignored “Prayers for Rain.” The song opens with a bagpipe-like drone that gradually builds to a supporting volume for the one, then two guitars playing a treble-heavy arpeggio in Am, Bm and D with random splashes of synth and piano in deep background. At about the thirty-three second mark you hear a sound building in the distance then WHAM! your ears are filled with stereophonic bass and synth at maximum volume. What follows is a consistent repetition of the chord pattern spiced with synth strings and six-string bass that will continue with appropriate enhancements throughout Robert Smith’s vocal. The lyrics describe one shitty relationship:
You shatter me your grip on me a hold on me
So dull it kills
You stifle me
Infectious sense of
Hopelessness and prayers for rain
This is a classic case of a black hole affair where one party gets sucked into the other’s depression. Some depressives can be quite manipulative with their poor-me-I’m-a-victim stories, making the partner feel somehow responsible for their problem. As Smith notes, the impact on the partner is devastating (“I suffocate/I breathe in dirt”) and potentially toxic. You can find plenty of good and bad advice on the Internet on how to cope with your loved one’s depression, and it was wise of Smith not to go there. “Prayers for Rain” focuses on the real-life experience involving the collateral damage suffered by the partner, and Smith does an excellent job through the lyrics and his semi-narrated vocal to draw attention to that particular dynamic.
As the next track opens with the sound of falling rain followed by a burst of thunder, we can reasonably assume that prayers were answered and that there is some sort of connection between “Prayers for Rain” and “The Same Deep Water As You.” Robert Smith told Oor Magazine that the song “is about the expectations people have of you and how you can never live up to those expectations.” Barbara Ellen of NME came to pretty much the same conclusion: “‘The Same Deep Water'” is about somebody admitting that he is not up to ‘her’ depth of emotion and loyalty.” Those interpretations are confirmed in the opening verse, but the dominant metaphors involve the complex metaphor of water (life, death, journey, cleansing) as well as the confusion frequently triggered by unspoken feelings:
Kiss me goodbye, pushing out before I sleep
Can’t you see I try?
But swimming the same deep water as you is hard
‘The shallow drowned lose less than we,’ you breathe
The strangest twist upon your lips
And we shall be together
And we shall be together
The narrator is like the boatman pushing out to sea, alone; sleep is defined as an act of separation. Though he tries to imbue himself with her appreciation of “deep love,” it doesn’t seem that they’re on the same page. The “shallow drowned” line is a reminder of the risk and reward of a deeper love; it’s as if she is admonishing the narrator to try harder. He can’t fathom (sorry, that’s a horrible pun) her message, largely because it’s communicated in metaphors and facial expressions. It seems like she has some sort of arcane knowledge he struggles to divine, but it’s more likely that these two are not the kinds of partners who can communicate volumes with a fleeting glance. The repetition of the line “And we shall be together” feels like his insistence that their differences can be glossed over—after all, didn’t they just have great sex? He returns to that “proof” of intimacy in the closing verse:
I will kiss you, I will kiss you
I will kiss you forever on nights like this
I will kiss you, I will kiss you
And we shall be together
This is one relationship in serious trouble. Even the greatest fuck in the world won’t save it.
The agony of the song lies in the hard-learned lesson that you can be in a relationship and still feel terribly alone. The narrator can pretend all he wants, but his inability to interpret the meaning of “the strangest twist upon your lips,” combined with her inability or unwillingness to communicate in ways he can understand form a separation that guarantees they will eventually drift apart. And that’s what’s so painful—so close, yet so far; so pleasurable, so disappointing. The music is beautifully supportive of this agonizing dynamic, a slow dirge drenched in distance-creating reverb. “The Same Water As You” may be the longest song on Disintegration, but it is a tightly-crafted composition with palpable mood and poetically economical lyrics.
The guitar that dominates the opening of “Disintegration” and remains present throughout the song features a tone that eerily sounds like the ghost of Duane Eddy, and it’s fascinating to hear how that sound survived the decades and works perfectly in the band least likely to revive “Rebel Rouser.” Critical musing aside, the guitar is part of a fast-moving soundscape revolving around the unchanging chord pattern of C, D, Em, Em7 (the key is E minor). Repetitive chord patterns tend to be the stuff of “talkin’ blues” songs; here they provide Robert Smith a platform for his “scream against everything falling apart, and my right to quit with it when I want to.” (Oom interview) He describes his relationship with the music business, with his mates and with his fan base using the same language he uses in songs about relationships, but “Disintegration” is more-oriented towards “this is what I want/don’t want” than “what do we want/don’t want”:
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 . . .
And now that I know that I’m breaking to pieces
I’ll pull out my heart and I’ll feed it to anyone
I’m crying for sympathy, crocodile’s cry
For the love of the crowd
And the three cheers from everyone
What’s curious about this title track is that it contradicts his own definition of “disintegration” in the context of the album: “the disgust concerning the loss of the ability to feel profound feelings when you grow older.” This is about his disintegration, and it’s a chosen disintegration—an act of rebellion against the bullshit, the lack of privacy and the enormous strain to meet other people’s expectations. Though there are many songs where rock stars bitch about their horrible lives in luxury suites and the cruel strain of obtaining pussy on demand, Robert Smith’s rant is far more personal and emotionally authentic. At the end of the song, I want to cry out, “Good for you! Free at last!” And because he uses the language of interpersonal relationships to describe his predicament, his fuck-all solution reminds listeners that we all have “the right to quit with it” (a bad relationship) when we want to.
The vinyl album closer begins with the sound of grandma’s church organ playing a few introductory measures before Boris kicks grandma the hell out of the studio with the pounding of his toms (don’t worry, grandma’s okay and she’ll come back for the coda). The music that responds to his cue features a simple descending guitar riff with a hummable melody, helping to balance the intensity of the drums and creating space for Robert Smith’s closing reflections. I don’t think I’ve heard too many closing tracks that summarize an album’s themes as well as “Untitled,” so I will quote in full:
In the eyes of the ghost again
Down on my knees
And my hands in the air again
Pushing my face in the memory of you again
But I never know if it’s real
Never know how I wanted to feel
Never quite said what I wanted to say to you
Never quite managed the words to explain to you
Never quite knew how to make them believable
And now the time has gone
Another time undone
Hopelessly fighting the devil
Feeling the monster
Climb deeper inside of me
Feeling him gnawing my heart away
I’ll never lose this pain
Never dream of you again
The sense of unstable identity. Our complex relationship with memories. The sheer difficulty of emotional communication. The cruel passing of time. The demons inside. The pain of loss. These are all part and parcel of being human, including—no, especially—the endless contradictions. “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” Blake’s argument from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell could easily be applied to the essential meaning of Disintegration.
Life is heaven, life is hell, get over it and enjoy the ride.