The Cure – Disintegration
If Standing on the Beach – their first and best singles collection – is included, The Cure released one album for every year of the 1980s, except for 1983 and 1988 – the latter, of course, the year of Acid House, and of Sub Pop 200, a compilation featuring Mudhoney, Green River, and a song called ‘Spank Thru’ by a little-known bunch of Aberdeen hicks called Nirvana, originally recorded under the sumptuously unpromising moniker Fecal Matter.
1988, then. The Cure stopped to draw breath – after Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Pornography [pause to punch each other up, disintegrate, go camping, write 'The Lovecats', 'The Walk' and 'Let's Go to Bed', meet Tim Pope, make videos, become unlikely pop stars, release the not-quite-album Japanese Whispers and for Robert Smith, additionally, to record with the Banshees and with Steve Severin as The Glove, The Top, The Head On the Door, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me: that's a discography not to be sniffed at, though getting it onto tape may, by several accounts did, involve a lot of sniffing of certain contraband substances; "Cocaine phase"? The Cure had a cocaine decade – and the tectonic plates of popular music did a little dance beneath them. Rave on one side of the Atlantic and grunge on the other: on one side Ecstasy; on the other Misery of a discordant, raw-throated kind, utterly alien(ated) in spirit from The Cure, for all their expertise in emotional shades of grey through to black.
But there was one more year of the decade left, and one more album to see out the decade (with legitimate claim to being an Album of the Decade) for The Cure, which they spent 1988 preparing for; little knowing, then, that their time as a band of their time was nearly up. (Odd, really, for an artist as obsessed with the passing of time as Robert Smith that he demonstrates so little awareness, as the years tick by, of ever being, once and for all, out of time). There was 1989, and there was Disintegration, the most adult album The Cure ever made, before teenagers with fresh moves and fresh misery displaced them.
Why not start with ‘Love Song’, which happens to be on my headphones as I type this sentence? Why not indeed, seeing as how The Cure’s entire oeuvre from beginning to (as yet undesignated) end has been the love song? ‘This Is Not a Love Song’: Robert Smith never acted upon John Lydon’s memo, though I like to imagine that he listened to it, back in 1983, his “holiday” from The Cure, when he managed to chart off the back of Pornography (love songs of the most obsessive, crippling, misanthropically interdependent kind) by writing ‘Let’s Go to Bed’, which was in its own self-amused and prettily cynical way also Not a Love Song. Perhaps he had it on his headphones while camping in rural Wales, which was, according to reports, where he vanished to after Pornography had very nearly sent everyone involved with The Cure to a place bearing some resemblance to Syd Barret’s rocking chair. Perhaps Smith realised then that it didn’t all have to be so serious, that the punk spirit he’d first discerned as a teenager in the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could admit of a little humour, now and again.
But back to ‘Lovesong’, which is a love song, generically named as such, with a refrain that runs I will always love you, surely the Ur-text of love songs. It could have been written for anybody, to anybody, as if the writer had sipped Pure Essence of Love Song, and if there’s any lyricist drunk on the anonymous second-person pronoun it’s Robert Smith, who can barely go a song without an unnamed ‘you’ making itself (un)known. ‘Lovesong’, however, was written for a somebody, a very special somebody: Robert Smith’s long-time partner Mary Poole; not only that, it was Smith’s wedding present to his new wife when, after nearly fifteen years together, they chose 1988 in which to marry. Now there’s a humdinger of an occasion for a love song, and I restate these well-known biographical facts if only to underline how little headway can be made once having fallen into the treacherous waters of the Biographical Fallacy. For you see, ‘Lovesong’ neither grows nor diminishes as a song with this knowledge added to it; it’s still nothing more or less than a love song which could have been written to anybody, for anybody, as if, having spent the decade of the 1980s and nearly half a one before that at work upon love songs written to an unidentified second-person pronoun – the sort of love song that the pop world turns on – Robert Smith couldn’t quite switch back from his Public Image Ltd to the personal, and so wrote what one might ostensibly view as his most personally significant love song, which, perversely or predictably, depending on which end of the telescope you’re inclined to look through, turned into the biggest hit The Cure ever had, charting at Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and making The Cure the kind of stadium-touring American superstars that British bands often dream of being, and very rarely become.
[Unless, of course, every love song that Robert Smith ever did and ever will write was addressed to the same somebody as 'Lovesong', which would make Smith something like the musical equivalent of Michael Apted, a documentarian in it for the long-haul, obsessively revisiting his subject: a big question, that, but not in the last a particularly interesting one, pop music being at its least compelling when considered as a transparent window onto living.]
And what does ‘Lovesong’ sound like? It sounds like The Cure, who quite early on got very good at sounding like an amalgam of half-memories of different artists but most especially like themselves. It has a very simple keyboard refrain that can be played with one hand, a steady heartbeat of a rhythm that never once threatens to accelerate – no Acid House party would ever invade The Cure’s front lawn – and a bass line played high up on the fretboard as a contrapuntal melody to the keyboards and vocals: a style of bass line which Peter Hook lays trademark to and claims The Cure stole from him one day in 1983 shortly after the release of ‘Blue Monday’ when he wasn’t sufficiently on guard, though at this point I think he really should just let it rest, imitation being the best form of flattery and all that and anyway, Simon Gallup is still better looking.
Robert Smith’s vocal on ‘Lovesong’ finds him in “sweetly pensive” mode, or rather mood – for a man with such limited natural vocal ability, because of it, Smith changes emotional tone like the Horse of a Different Colour changes coats as it trots around the byways of the Emerald City: abruptly and often, from one monochrome to the next – the pensiveness helped, one might say created, by a chord change in the middle of that generically sincere refrain, I will always love you, from A minor to C major; when measured against the scale a tiny adjustment from G# to A for the fingers and the voice, the increment of a semitone, the smallest measurable interval in Western music. This relative insubstantiality of distance between one note and the next never quite detracts – as anyone who’s spent time playing a instrument can attest – from the uncanny magic of hearing a raised seventh, the note that gives a minor key what we call melancholy, its Essence of Minor, resolve itself into the sun-blessed dawn of a tonic note shared with the major key. It’s the harmonic equivalent of drying one’s tears, and the fact that a love song so unabashedly straightforward as ‘Lovesong’ should be written around the elementary switch from the simplest harmonic minor key to its equally simple relative major is, in its own humble way, quite brilliant, the sort of musical elegance that the pop world turns on.
Robert Smith is passingly good at many things – wearing eyeliner, sacking band members, sniping about Morrissey – but he is surpassingly good at crafting a particular kind of pop song, a particular kind of love song, one that trembles on an edge between togetherness and separation; in which the love object is always threatening to be lost or to make themselves lost; and where small but simultaneously cosmic miscommunications between lovers happen at the chord change from minor to major and back again.
Consider ‘Plainsong’, which puts us back at the beginning of Disintegration with another generic title, this one not so much an essence as an eau de Catholicism. It opens with synthesised bells – they sound a little cheap, to be honest – and continues to like a ship letting out sail with billowing, organ-toned keyboards. (The Cure being a band of their time, and this being the 1980s, it’s almost a guarantee that every instrument that sounds as if it falls outside of the drums/bass/guitar parameter is a Roland keyboard factory preset). ‘Plainsong’ is more likely wedding music than ‘Lovesong’, only waiting for a slow-motion waltz up the aisle to consummate its grandeur. But then Robert Smith begins to sing, and the words he sings are the only Cure lyric I ever feel the urge to quote in full, as evidence that, for all his writerly faults – and Smith has a few – he is eminently capable of crafting a lyric as tight and graceful as the best short story:
“I think it’s dark, and it looks like 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.”
Then 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.”
Then 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.
It’s that last move which moves me every time, in which miscommunicating lovers (mis)read each other’s thoughts; where the unspoken edge of all things is replied to, and turns out to be the twist of a face. And Smith sings the whole lyric so gently, choosing not to compete with the instrumentation in a way that so often gives his voice a panicked yelp; here, buoyed along by generous reverb, he’s melodic and tender and almost preternaturally calm, the calm before the dark and long storm of Disintegration, which I declared at the top to be the most adult album The Cure ever made, because every song on it sounds like the creation of a mind that has given long thought to the difficulties and bewilderment, the joy and the fear, of commitment.
Are we back at the Biographical Fallacy? Smith has gone on record many times to say that Disintegration came about in large part out of his own dissatisfaction at turning thirty years old, the decisive tick of the clock over into adult time, and I believe it, especially as I edge towards thirty myself. But a successful creative work is more than the sum of its creator’s conscious intent, and Disintegration succeeds because its emotional reach goes beyond mere birthday angst or post-wedding nerves; because Smith is a surpassingly good writer of pop and also not-very-pop songs with incredibly wide appeal, and because Disintegration distills every melancholy Cure moment into a potent elixir, adds one drop per song, and makes of its concentrated, committed intensity a luxuriantly aqueous world of sadness.