“‘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’ and then you smiled for
a second. — The Cure, “Plainsong”
“Plainsong,” the opening number on The Cure’s seminal album, “Disintegration,” rolls along slowly like fog. The song’s in no hurry. It’s about two minutes and 40 seconds until the vocals appear, and when they do, they’re more spoken than sung, finding a strange, muffled middle ground between the two. It’s an almost alienating way to begin the album. The gloom informs everything that comes afterward. It soaks into your skin, sticks to your ribs.
And it’s utterly rewarding.
“Disintegration,” released 25 years ago last week, was a dangerous album for a melancholic 17-year-old to discover. It was entirely too easy to sink into its operatic heartbreak and multilayered sense of loneliness, the Sturm und Drang of adolescent romance, that awkward moment where love inevitably slipped through your fingers like water, leaving behind a bitter “almost.”
“If only I’d thought of the right words,” sings vocalist-songwriter Robert Smith, in one of the album’s most successful singles, “Pictures of You,” “I could have held on to your heart/ If only I’d thought of the right words/ I wouldn’t be breaking apart .”
It’s almost embarrassing to admit how deeply in love with this album I was, and just as bad to admit how much I still am. It is, the folly of a teenager’s heart aside, an absolute masterpiece, Smith digging deeper and deeper into a fever-dream, each chord lolling ominously, each strand of music thick enough to clasp your hand around.
“However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you
Whatever words I say
I will always love you
I will always love you” — “Lovesong”
Certainly, whatever a teenager knows about love and loss is usually poorly informed and more likely absurd, but it’s striking how well this album has stood the test of time, songs such as “Lovesong,” “Last Dance” and the album’s perhaps most pop-friendly song, “Fascination Street,” having an appeal that seems to transcend mere nostalgia. For all their melodrama, these are still formidable love songs, and if they’re sometimes over-the-top then, at the very least, they carry it well.
The drawn out bass line that leads off “Fascination Street,” the album’s first U.S. single, is telling. As airy and ethereal as this album threatens to become, there’s always something solid to hold onto, some tangible connection to the ground. Which is good, because there are points where Smith jumps headlong into the fog, and trusts that the listener will leap with him.
“On candystripe legs,” he sings on the nightmarish “Lullaby,” “spiderman comes/ softly through the shadow of the evening sun/ stealing past the windows of the blissfully dead/ looking for the victim shivering in bed.”
If you had the least bit of goth in you in 1989, this was your favorite song on the album, with its creepy portrait of a monster that comes to devour you in your sleep, the sense of horror waiting in the darkness. When I was 17, I thought it was just a scary monster song. Twenty-five years later, I think it might be a parable about abuse — “be still be calm be quiet now my precious/ boy don’t struggle like that or i will only love/ you more for it’s much too late to get away” — but honestly, I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that it unsettles me more now than it did when I was young, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.
There are many ambiguous moments nestled within the electronic symphony. While the music rises and falls with startling beauty, Smith lets slip a line such as, in “Prayers for Rain,” “you fracture me your hands on me a touch so/ plain so stale it kills you strangle me entangle/ me in hopelessness and prayers for rain.”
Eventually, one’s forced to wonder if there’s not something darker than romantic rejection underneath this album, something that gives the album’s sheer intensity of emotion its ring of truth. But that’s simply idle speculation, and for every complete descent into abject misery, Smith balances out with a more relatable, more up-tempo song such as the title song, “Disintegration,” which — if not exactly cheery — is easy to lose yourself in, to get caught up in its small storms.
“… songs about happiness murmured in dreams
when we both of us knew how the ending would
be…” — “Disintegration”
This is an album I’ve returned to often in the past 25 years, and I’m often not entirely sure what’s drawn me: Some old melancholy, perhaps, some echo of an “almost.” “Never quite said what I wanted/to say to you,” sings Smith in the album’s untitled closer, ” never quite managed the words to/ explain to you never quite knew how to make/them believable/ and now the time has gone.”
“Disintegration” — as much now as then — is an album that leaves you drained and empty-handed. But traversing its beauty and dark corners again, it’s clear the desolation is an entirely worthwhile price to pay for such an extraordinary journey.
© Victor D. Infante