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.