The Cure - Disintegration

The subject of this 1989 album got raised the other day amongst the Disquiet Junto members. As Destroyer’s latest album got released, its opener reminded me of Lost Wishes era The Cure. During the conversation some big fans of the band admitted they can’t even listen to Disintegration all the way through. That album resonates very deeply with me so it’s hard for me to imagine not being able to listen to it in its entirety. I ended up writing a lot there about how I see the album, so here it is for posterity.

My intention isn’t to be overly comprehensive here. Everything’s been said on this album, including on infamous animated sitcoms:

Disintegration is an extremely focused album that uses elements of their previous work in an entirely new, moody way. It was a continuation of the Faith aesthetic, sure, but with themes of decay, passing, doom, apocalypse, well, truly, disintegration. It is a bitch of a depressing album which is why some people I know have trouble listening to it: it affects them in ways they don’t like. Personally I feel it helped me accept the indifference of the universe towards me, but some of my friends are not ready for that kind of thing. I get that.

I essentially love every track there due to how they build up, how they sound with their spacious arrangements that are placed within large spaces but still focused (they don’t senselessly drown in reverb), Smith’s vocals are dramatic but not over-the-top as he likes to do with his “pop song” kind of track, which I often find jarring, even when it’s a successful one like Friday I’m In Love.

Track by track

Plainsong and Closedown have similar arrangements with long musical intros going over the entire structure of the song, then you have a short vocal part, and the music takes over again. To me they are two sides of the same coin. The former is about how it feels to live with someone overwhelmed by nihilism. The latter is about being that nihilist.

The two are split by Pictures of you which in my reading connects them in a “before/after” chain of events. As Dan Bejar once sang: “don’t become the thing you hated”. But you do, through osmosis and exposure to loss and regret. Plus, personally I feel that the Fender VI on that track is the most epic example of that instrument in all of music. Sorry, Brian Molko.

Ironically, straight after singing “if only I could fill my heart with love”, Smith gives us Lovesong which is in the minority of faster-paced tracks on the album. This escaped me when I was a teenager but nowadays I interpret this song as a failure to truly love somebody because the entire series of avowals in the lyrics is about the narrator, not about the other person. It’s about “how you make me feel” which is somewhat of a lesser form of love because it basically says “I love this effect you have on me” versus “I care about you as a person”.

And sure enough, this is followed by Last Dance, one of my all-time favorites by the band. One of the rare overdriven guitars on the album, and a powerful musical setup combined with pretty straightforward lyrics about the inability of stepping into the same river twice. Which reminds me of the later Same Deep Water As You but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There’s Lullaby first, which is one of the Cure’s most popular songs. I love the fact that it is because it’s uncommon for songs that are clearly not about love to get to this level of popularity. The song can be interpreted in many ways, one of the convincing one’s being a depiction of child abuse. However, from the interviews it seems like the straightforward one was what Smith had in mind. Night terrors. The song doesn’t resonate with me as strongly as it used to, but I remember it being somewhat of a revelation on first hearing.

Fascination Street is a divisive song. Quite a few people point at it as their least favorite track on the album. That was my initial reaction to the song, too. But when I unexpectedly covered it for a girl I liked (20 years ago this year, high school, didn’t work out) with lyrics translated to Polish, I grew to love it. An unexpected song about the futility of the rush you feel when meeting someone new. Usually songs about this stage of the relationship are positive: sensual, romantic, hopeful, seeing the other person through pink-colored lenses. Not here.

And now begins the trio of tracks that hit the hardest for me. Prayers for Rain on emotional desolation, The Same Deep Water as You on not meeting expectations, and finally the title track, a fast-paced stream of consciousness in the style of an emotional monologue ending a relationship. Prayers for Rain is a reset of sorts after Fascination Street here, it sets the mood for the album’s climax. When it’s followed by the sound of rain actually falling in The Same Deep Water As You, you realize that it’s essentially a “careful what you wish for, you might get it” scenario. The narrator wished for somebody to care, but once they do, the narrator is unable to fulfill expectations set for them. No longer by himself, but still essentially alone in this.

The title track is the obvious climax of the album. After the stage and mood was set with the two previous tracks, its fast pace is the motion needed to make the message heard. It’s not out of place surrounded by the slow, brooding, quieter tracks. You feel it’s an adrenaline rush to yell out your feelings, not a dopamine rush. The content of the breakup monologue ends with an admission that the narrator believes all relationships are doomed to fail. This might have been a piece of “in the moment” drama, but no: this is a theme of the album. Things are hopeless, essentially.

And the album indeed closes with two tracks about how the concept of “home” doesn’t provide lasting happiness… but neither does escaping from it into “forbidden fruits” territory. Finally, Untitled about not even being able to communicate, making the statement the album makes itself a hopeless endeavor.

A bird’s eye view

All in all, the album is a comprehensive statement of hopelessness and the inevitability of decay. It’s internally consistent in ways that no album of theirs after Pornography, and no album since Disintegration, was able to achieve. Both in the theme and in how it sounds. Production-wise the album is wide open, sparkling, and loud. But not in the “loudness war” sense. There is plenty of dynamic range there. There is little distortion on it but it doesn’t need it so sound heavy either. The weight comes from the lyrics and the vocals. It could be said that Robert Smith never sang with more variety and impact. And, again, the flanged Fender VI sound is a cult classic here.

Every friend I have who is a fan of this album can point to a single track there that they like the least. I mentioned that for many it’s Fascination Street. In my case that’s Untitled. It’s not a bad track but I would leave it out because to me it’s a song in a different style. It sounds like it comes from Wish. It’s also in a different mood, i.e., it’s a different stage of grief processing than the other songs; it feels like there’s a hint of acceptance there whereas the other songs are desperate.

That’s a very minor gripe though. Disintegration is a concept album of sorts, and it pulls off the concept very well in my opinion. And personally I found it extremely valuable in my formative years as a confirmation that “it’s not just me”. Strangely, hearing a band at the height of their popularity sing of things always going to shit helped me face rejection, and some of my first serious breakups. I no longer need it for that, but it will always be dear to me through this experience. With age, the wider angle of entropy biting at each aspect of our existence, that resonates ever more strongly.