It probably surprises some people when I tell them that The Cure’s Disintegration is one of my favourite albums of all time. After all, this dense, dark, often self-pitying and claustrophobic record is hardly the stuff of buoyant pop music that many people would probably associate me with. Yet pop has a huge part to play here. Because it was through pop that I found The Cure.
The memories are distant now, but I have hazy recollections of first hearing the The Lovecats one summer on a friends Walkman on a summer school coach trip to Guildford Lido. I also remember being transfixed by the Close To Me video on Saturday morning kids TV where the whole band appeared to be shoved in a wardrobe and pushed off a cliff. Both of these tunes are very much pop songs, albeit wonky slightly left of centre pop songs. Yet pop nonetheless.
However, the first time The Cure came to really mean something to me wasn’t until 1987 when they released their album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. The happy thrills of the blaring horns on Why Can’t I Be You and the bouncing bass of Just Like Heaven, a song that even now has the potential to get alt-kids flailing around the indie disco dancefloor, may have drawn me in, but it was the darker, sludgier stuff such as the writhing uncomfortable Snakepit and the album’s title track that kept me coming back for more. “Kiss me kiss me kiss me, your tongue is like poison, so swollen it fills up my mouth,” sang Smith on that one, a lyric that was both vulgar, sexual and comical all at the same time.
It was that darkness that was about to envelop Robert Smith for his next record, and despite 1989 being a time in my life full of joy, excitement and endless possibilities, Disintegration’s self-loathing and intense sense of loss found a huge place in my heart and still does to this day, even though I'm a reasonably upbeat and positive thinking person.
Written against a backdrop of Smith being about to turn 30 as well as the tension and decline of friendship between him and band member Lol Tolhurst (“I was determined to involve everybody but Lol’s various addictions were really taking their toll,” Smith has been quoted as saying of the recordings) Disintegration certainly isn’t what you’d normally define as a pop record. Yet it became the band’s most popular record, hitting number 3 in the UK charts, going double platinum in America and spawned The Cure’s biggest hit singles in both the UK and the States (with Lullaby and Love Song respectively).
And there lies an important factor, something that is often missed about this incredible long-player. Despite Disintegration being an album that sounds not only as if it was born out of despair, but is despair itself, there is still within it a heart of pop. Not everyone could see that though, particularly The Cure’s label, who were less than enthusiastic. “I was confident that, although the overall mood of the album was pretty downbeat, there was so much strong immediate melody and interplay in songs like Pictures Of You, Lullaby and Love Song the record company couldn’t help but recognise Disintegration as a perfect Cure album, it was a bit of a shock to find they didn’t” Smith recalled on the inside cover of the remastered deluxe version of the album.
Smith was of course proved right. His label might not have got it, but fans did. The Cure was connecting and growing their audience. “We weren’t attracting or maintaining someone else’s mainstream crowd, we were creating and nurturing our own,” Smith explained. It’s something The Cure has continued to do to this day. When the Guardian recently criticised Smith for playing huge long sprawling sets, fans were quick to point out how the reviewer just didn’t understand what The Cure was about.
So what is the attraction of Disintegration? For me it’s because it’s what every great album should be - a complete body of work, with every track sitting perfectly in the right place. But more than that, if you’ve experienced love, from its heady joys, to the pain of breaking apart, you’ll be able to connect with this record. It’s as sad, intimate, plaintive and beautiful as any long-player I’ve ever experienced.
Writing about individual songs feels wrong, such is the completeness of it, but if I had to pick three defining tracks then the first would be Plainsong, the opening number. It’s not just a song but an event in itself. Starting quietly with soft chimes it leads you (as the original accompanying sleeve notes suggested) to turn up the volume, before booming in with gothic synths, tumbling drums and despondent guitars, setting a majestic tone for what is to come. ”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,” Smith sings, his words echoing around the space in an almost dreamlike state.
My second choice would be The Same Deep Water As You. A sombre nine and a half minute soundtrack featuring the sound of a storm and Smith singing of kissing goodbye before he sleeps, it’s both gorgeous and unbelievably sad. It’s easy and lazy to stereotype this song as being one for teenage goths to listen to in their bedrooms, but it’s so much more than that. It can be interpreted in so many different ways lyrically, but however you read it, the music is something to lose yourself in.
The third song I would choose is the title track, where the newly married Smith dives in with a wail of torment and cold-heartedness: "I never said I would stay to the end, I knew I would leave you with babies and everything.” It ends with him repeating the flat-out heartbreaking line of “both of us knew, how the end always is.” A barrel of laughs this song most certainly isn’t. There’s no chorus as such, no happy ending and it clocks in at over eight minutes. You can understand why Smith’s label didn’t get it.
What’s remarkable about Disintegration though is that as it gets closer to its thirty year anniversary it still sounds remarkably fresh, still gloomily intense and importantly is still a record I can listen to from start to finish and feel raw emotion from. It’s for that reason that I feel certain that the word masterpiece sticks.
The Cure - Pictures Of You (From Disintegration)