The Cure’s eighth studio album, Disintegration, turned 30 this week, and it’s safe to say there’s a consensus that this album is the band’s finest. It’s their culmination of growth and learning over the previous decade, a milestone in their career, and, most importantly, the record that captures the band at the peak of their creative powers.
(Read: The Cure’s 10 Best Deep Cuts)
The band reached peak popularity, in the States anyway, in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They were making great music, sure, but this is the time they managed to transcend from radio-friendly Brit-pop rock stars to deep goth icons. The Cure developed a distinct sound, their fans a unique look — complete with a wardrobe and sensibility — that helped nurture a whole identity of teenage kids, one that can be found in any high school during any decade.
I am the product of two Gen X-ers and grew up listening to bands like The Smiths, Joy Division, and, of course, The Cure. I have memories of being a little girl in the backseat as my parents drove down the 710 in LA, singing along to “Just Like Heaven” off the band’s 1987 double album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. I grew up listening to their more radio-friendly, easier-to-digest songs: “The Love Cats”, “Why Can’t I Be You?”, and “Boys Don’t Cry”. The third I would mockingly sing to my younger brother whenever he threw a tantrum in the car.
I distinctly remember the moment the playlist shuffle would hit a song off of Disintegration. I would hear “Lovesong” and suddenly be overcome with something I couldn’t identify at eight or nine but was familiar with: melancholy. I heard this song as a kid and just thought it was so sad. But I’d look up to my parents in the front seats — the LA cityscape in a blur as we drove past — holding each other’s hands over the center console, my dad taking a sneak peek at my mom before returning his eyes to the road. I didn’t understand why a song that was making little me feel so sad was making them look at each other like that.
Fast-forward to my teenage/high school years where The Cure were on heavy rotation on my Zune. As I said above, The Cure inspired an identity that every generation will have its own version of, and we were no exception. Maybe outwardly the wardrobe changed (though some kids were still brave enough to fashion the black trench coats and white makeup and eyeliner), but the sentiments and sensibility were still there. We were just called the emo kids now.
All of this is to say that I really didn’t listen to Disintegration in its entirety until I was about 17 in 2011, when I had my own similar gazing-into-each-other’s-eyes-while-driving moment. I was an awkward, shy kid and hadn’t really ever had feelings for or done anything with a boy, until he came along. He was driving me home. It was winter break, and he lived on the outskirts of town. I was at his place, no parents around, and it was the first time I was ever intimate or vulnerable with someone. I was seated in his car after the fact, rushing to make my family’s holiday dinner, and leaned in to turn on the radio. Oregon radio stations are always hit-or-miss, but I managed to find a station playing “Pictures of You”.
I was buzzing with youth and first-love feelings and remember him grabbing my hand just as my dad had my mom’s. He smiled and looked at me, and I smiled back, and I remember thinking, “I’ll always have this moment, and it’ll always be tied to this song — this is going to be our song.” I fantasized that this would work out and he would be mine forever, because I was a kid and a complete romantic. We got to my house, he dropped me off, and he never spoke to me again.
It hurt, it stung, and it felt cruel then, but I listened to that song and the entire album over and over again in the following weeks. I’m a hopeless romantic, and that’s who this album is made by and for.
Disintegration is a prodigious 71-minute album filled with slow, dark, and sensual contemplation and introspection. Robert Smith was about to turn 30 — got engaged and later married — and was having a hard time with his bandmates, so he decided to go off and write something meaningful on his own. The album is as ceaseless as the hearts of the listeners who dare dive into it, beginning with its opening track, “Plainsong”, which is as perfectly crafted an introduction to an album as you’re likely to find. It starts with about 20 seconds of wind chimes, ominous bass, synths, and drums that finally erupt in a thunderous upsurge that welcomes us into the gloomy and stormy, little world of Smith’s creation. The song goes, “I think it’s dark and it looks like it’s rain, you said/ And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world, you said,”
It informs us instantly that we are in the company of someone who relates dismal weather to their emotional state and perspective on life. It drowns you in such a fierce downpour of gloom and emotion that it’s no wonder teenage me and teenagers before me and since have found it extremely meaningful. This isn’t to say The Cure or Disintegration are exclusively “teenagey” or “emo” but that “Plainsong” is a grand statement that understands that, at that age in particular, everything you’re feeling in your life seems engrossingly crucial and essential, whether it’s sadness, longing, lust, joy, or whatever.
The record continues from there with “Pictures of You”, a nearly eight-minute song with a two-minute intro, though you can’t really imagine it being any shorter. Smith, along with us, is reveling in his nostalgia, making his way through a stack of photos in the same way I sort through my Instagram posts. We both cling to these stacks of emotions and embrace a sort of sadness as we linger on each image, a feeling that’s catered with glistening and wistful guitars.
Then we have the phantasmal “Closedown” followed by the simple and concise hit “Lovesong”. The latter reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 and remains The Cure’s biggest US single to date. It’s among the most lachrymose expressions of love you’ll ever hear. Smith sings in the present tense as it’s said to be a song he wrote for his future wife for their wedding, and as I learned at 17 with my first broken heart, or at 23 with the divorce of my parents, there’s an inherent morose feeling in love, right along with the beauty in it, which is perfectly executed in this song.
The album, as directed in the liner notes, “was mixed to be played loud, so turn it up.” As you listen, you realize that it was intentionally crafted with breathing room in mind and designed to be an airy, echoey trail that leads to a place of comfort. It’s a lush, morose sprawl. “Fascination Street”, “Lullaby”, and the title track are meant to seep down into your core and help you maneuver the feelings inside you that are, as wisdom eventually teaches us, universal. As are feelings of love, heartbreak, pain, joy, isolation — and the desperation to be wanted or heard. It’s an album guaranteed to make you feel something seismic shifting within, whether in adolescence or years later as an adult.
Disintegration has the reputation of being crumbling, woefully dark, and depressive, but I like to think whether or not you devoted time to it as a teenager, you can pick up the album at any age and find a place within it. You can be cripplingly depressed, anxious as hell, frustrated, or full of self-loathing, and Disintegration will embrace you back. The same goes for those madly in love or nostalgic in the moment.
The mass appeal of this album is its comfort and that you’re able to find ease despite its monolithic scope. The songs work with a steady pulse of bass and guitar, assertive and energetic synth lines, and ethereal melodies that sparkle as you listen, all tied together by Robert Smith’s voice echoing calmly, warmly, and beautifully as he surveys the landscape he’s created, one that you can visit time and time again. As a child in the backseat of your parents’ car, as a teenager who believes love will go on forever, or as an adult locked into the gaze of a longtime lover.
Essential Tracks: “Plainsong”, “Lovesong”, and “Fascination Street”