Monday, October 14, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #242 - The Cure - Disintegration (1989)

            You’ve almost certainly heard of the Cure. And you’ve almost certainly heard at least one song off their 1989 album Disintegration. It’s hardly obscure; after all, we’re talking about the album that brought us “Lovesong.” But there’s nothing quite like listening to the whole thing all the way through for the first time. It’s brooding. It’s melancholy. It’s like watching a thunderstorm happen in reverse. This album is quintessential for the Cure; it combines the darker, moodier feeling of early albums like Faith and Pornography with the accessibility of albums like Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. There’s a reason this album is a classic, which still earns acclaim thirty years after its release. If you’re gonna get into the Cure, this is the album to start with.
            Disintegration was written at a rather turbulent time for the Cure. During its production, the band’s keyboardist and one of its founding members, Lol Tolhurst, left the band and was replaced by touring keyboardist Roger O’Donnell. Robert Smith, the band’s frontman, was suffering from depression and turned to psychedelic drugs to cope. His introspection about turning 30, and about the legacy of the band, also influenced the album; they’d begun writing poppy tunes to avoid being pigeonholed as simply a Goth band, but Smith now wanted to get back to their roots. This resulted in an album which kept some pop elements, but returned to a darker sound.
            To start with, there’s the opening track, “Plainsong.” It starts out quiet, with gently ringing bells, and then explodes rather suddenly into an atmospheric, warm, shimmery intro that hits like the first burst of sunlight through the clouds at the end of a storm. Then comes the guitar, dripping with melody. By the time the vocals hit, you’re fully immersed. Their echoes complement the atmosphere of the song perfectly, and Smith’s voice blends in, rather than being sung over the rest of it.
            After “Plainsong” is “Pictures of You.” Like much of the album, the keys, the shimmers, and guitar sounds from “Plainsong” carry over to this track, but Smith’s vocals take on more of a leading role. Then comes “Closedown,” which continues the feeling, but brings in more of Simon Gallup’s bass and Boris Williams’ drums. By this point you can tell the album has been building up to something, but you’re not sure what.
            And then there’s “Lovesong.” It’s an achingly sweet declaration of love, written as a wedding present to Smith’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Mary Poole. With its heart-melting lyrics and yearning melody, it’s easy to see why this song is so well-loved by fans and casual listeners alike. I can’t hear it without wanting to sing along; it’s beautiful. It starts out softer and subtler than previous tracks on the album, with a catchy bass line and quiet keys. Then come the vocals and the iconic guitar and keyboard riffs, adding a new energy to the album and giving it new depth. This song is where Disintegration goes from good to great.
            "Lovesong" is followed up by “Last Dance,” a heart-shattering track that brings back the shimmery atmosphere from earlier in the album, but makes it colder and sadder. The tender nostalgia in the lyrics is matched by Simon Gallup’s melodic bass and the reverb-heavy guitar that seems to drift down like snow over the listener. There’s a subtle desperation conveyed that sticks with you long after the song ends.
            And then there’s “Lullaby,” easily one of the top three tracks on Disintegration. It’s a bit of a departure from the earlier sound of the album, but it’s a perfect fit. The frantic, paranoid vocals are whispered rather than sung, fitting perfectly with the eerie lyrics, which describe being eaten by a spider man in a nightmare. It’s isolation, it’s terror, it’s helplessness, and it’s so strangely pretty you can’t help but listen again.
            Next comes “Fascination Street.” The reverb-laden guitars are back, echoing in a kind of organized chaos over the bass that draws you in. It’s a while before the vocals come in, which gives the listener a chance to get used to the building tension. But when the vocals hit, the tension only continues to build, which keeps the listener engaged and yearning for more.
This leads into the angst-ridden “Prayers for Rain,” a dark, gloomy track, with bleak imagery in its lyrics and simple but captivating guitar. Of all the tracks on Disintegration, this one is the closest to the deliciously nihilistic, desolate sound on earlier albums like Pornography. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The way it takes the warm elements of earlier tracks on the album and darkens them keeps me coming back to this track over and over again.
“The Same Deep Water As You” starts out with the sound of thunder and rain, which sets the pleasant but melancholy tone for the whole song. It’s not as dark as “Prayers for Rain.” Instead it’s a warm and mellow type of yearning, in striking opposition to the next song on the album, “Disintegration,” like the calm before a storm. It has a way of washing over the listener, bringing back the shimmering atmosphere that characterizes so much of this masterpiece of an album.
The title track, “Disintegration,” is much more fast-paced. It has a frantic, desperate feel to it, which persists until the last chord. It’s about selfishness, deception, and endings, and you can’t help being pulled into the narrative by Robert Smith’s deeply emotional vocals. The album has felt like it was building up to something, and with this track, it finally comes to a head.
After this is “Homesick,” for which Lol Tulhurst provided the basis before he left the band. It’s full of dramatic, aching sadness. Like most of the Cure’s work, it’s melody-driven. Disintegration feels like a breakup album, and this feels like the aftermath to the ending “Disintegration” represents.
Finally, the album ends with “Untitled.” It has a happier, warmer tone, in contrast to “Disintegration” and “Homesick.” This provides some closure, and ensures the listener doesn’t leave feeling too broken down. It’s still sad, but it’s less intense, and the lyrics echo back to the perception of unreality expressed in “Pictures of You.”
The Cure were one of the biggest bands of their era, transcending genre and crafting a legacy that will endure for generations. Disintegration is an album that captures all their best elements, and it’s the album that changed me from a casual listener to a fan. It’s melancholy and it can be dark, but it’s intensely beautiful. Is there really any better album for when you’re feeling down?
- Madden Ott

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