Masters of the Form: The Cure, 1989 – Disintegration

With 1987’s sprawling double album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the Cure, long considered by many fans to be the face of alternative music achieved something “the face of alternative music” was never supposed to achieve. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me made the Cure mainstream pop stars. Of course, their stardom was pretty much an inevitable product of their immense talent. The Cure was never simply an alternative band in the first place. They were Masters of the Form blessed with an incredibly gifted songwriter in Robert Smith that had a knack for writing shimmering pop compositions so catchy they were destined to crossover into the musical mainstream. After Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the Cure was no longer the cool band that only smart kids liked or the depressing band that only weird kids liked. After Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and its predecessor The Head on the Door, the Cure was the band who sang “Close to You”, “Why Can’t I Be You” and “Just Like Heaven”, tunes so good and accessible that they were songs that everybody liked.

By 1989, Smith had grown a bit weary of his new found pop stardom and was determined to swim out of the mainstream back into what he thought were the deeper waters of the band’s earlier work. That year the Cure released Disintegration a conscious look away from the unabashed pop of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and the mainstream success it had garnered. Disintegration was a brooding album that, taken at face value, could have put an end to the band’s success. However, the Cure proved to be, as always, a band of contradiction. In 1985 they released a defining statement, The Head on the Door an amazing album that was seemingly recorded with mass appeal in mind and the album simply got them noticed. In 1987 they released Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me a far messier affair, lacking its predecessor’s focus and cohesion, and the album made them superstars. So naturally, Disintegration an album that was meant to alienate the mainstream to a certain degree, essentially an album that was meant to sell less, became the most successful album of the band’s career.

True, the album was filled with long songs (six of the 12 tracks were over six minutes in length) whose lyrics detailed the depression of lost love and sad endings, set to music that seemed to cast the entire album in shadows. Disintegration had many things to offer listeners, but bright moments were not amongst them. Yet, in spite of all this, the success of Disintegration isn’t really a paradox. Disintegration wasn’t a depressing album, it was a masterpiece. It may have been consumed by yearning, unanswered prayers and lovers that will never return your love in kind, but it was a masterpiece nonetheless and it was the Cure’s most defining statement — a seemingly perfect combination of the cohesion and purpose found throughout The Head on the Door and the pure song craft sprinkled throughout the best tracks of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.

“I think it’s dark and it looks like rain” Smith sings on the album opener, “Plainsong” after majestic swirling keyboards that sound storm cloud gray. The lyrics detail a woman who feels plain and as cold as death, but has a smile that makes her lover feel as though he’s “living at the edge of the world”. The song never tells what happens but the music, which feels as though it is raining consistently throughout the track gives the listener a sense of loss that is never put into words. “Plainsong” is the ideal start to the album, because all too often the music isn’t just as important as the lyrics, the music functions as lyrics, giving details that are never expressed in words. “Pictures of You” is a good example of this. The relationship has ended; the singer blames himself. However, the grandeur of the music, the steady roll of the guitars and the flourishes of keyboards that seem to stick to the song like glitter, make it equally clear that this is more than just a simple love story. It is an epic tale of a man afraid that he has lost the only love he’ll ever have.

This theme of music telling the story of loss continues on what is, ostensibly, the album’s happiest song. “Love Song” is a fantastic pop son about the virtues of a great love, “However far away,” Smith sings, “I will always love you.” The rest of the lyrics indicate a very uncertain outcome that will result in him hurting her and leaving. This is punctuated by the running strings that sprint between the verses and the chorus, adding the tension that accompanies any need to escape. Tension is almost an additional instrument in “Lullaby”. Tension trips through the staccato of the strings and intensifies when Smith starts whispering ominously about a spiderman that will eventually eat him. The tension that accompanies loss is never absent from the album, but it is handled by such deft hands. “Last Dance”, “Homesick” and “Untitled” are stunningly gorgeous pieces of music that find an almost otherworldly beauty in loss, striking in how much emotion the convey and stir.

If there is one track that can summarize the album as a whole it’s “Fascination Street”. “Fascination Street” opens with a steadily building tension played out between the guitars, bass and drums. As soon as the tension has seemingly reached its peak, it disintegrates into a vocal welcoming everybody to “opening time down on fascination street” a place where people gather to dance to their pain and drag others down with them. The track is a magnificently performed theme song, complete with an absolutely gorgeous guitar performance by Porl Thompson, for the exact type of place where an album like Disintegration would be adored.

Ultimately “Fascination Street” became a reality. Disintegration was embraced as a masterpiece performed by Masters of the Form rather than a sad album (in fact it was just reissued as a three disc set to commemorate its 20th anniversary). It wasn’t an album that made listeners feel bad; it was an album that listeners turned to when they felt bad a source of solace and a key to the doors of “Fascination Street”.