One of the most potent post-punk albums in history was released 40 years ago this past April. That album, Faith, by the Cure, not only helped shape the post-punk sound, but it has deeply impacted popular music in both nuanced and obvious ways. At the same time, it’s an album that defies easy pigeonholing, sculpting a singular soundscape, and inhabiting its own claustrophobic universe.
Most saliently, Faith is the album that cemented the Cure as a formative musical force, even as the band’s more commercialized albums, such as Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987) and Disintegration (1989) are better known. Faith was the second in a trilogy that was inaugurated with the celestially solemn Seventeen Seconds (1980) and culminated in the punishing nihilism of 1982’s Pornography.
Back in the mid-1980s, when I first discovered the Cure and feverishly bought up all their albums, Faith was not one that stood out. It seems I was incapable of grasping the album’s full cosmic glory until my musical tastes matured, decades later. Nowadays, I find Faith’s glacial minimalism mesmerizing.
Faith, in a sense, could be considered a concept album. It focuses on the motif of faith as both a religious and personal construct. All the songs overtly or covertly touch upon the subject. The eight songs on the compact Faith are bookended by the haunting dirge, “The Holy Hour” and the more contemplative title song.
“The Holy Hour” is a grim song musically, and darkly introspective lyrically. Here, a 22-year old Robert Smith muses about his agnostic leanings –he attends a church service to explore his capacity for religious belief, only to discover he fiercely questions such belief. Indeed, the church environment ends up being an oppressive milieu for him.
Aside from exploring interesting themes, the lyrics present an interesting structure: each verse is syntactically similar to the previous, and also builds to a climax in which the singer and lyricist desolately declares his inability to harbor religious conviction:
i kneel and wait in silenceThe Cure’s “The Holy Hour”
as one by one the people slip away
into the night
the quiet and empty bodies
kiss the ground before they pray
and slip away…
i sit and listen dreamlessly
a promise of salvation makes me stay
then look at your face
and feel my heart pushed in
as all around the children play
the games they tired of yesterday
i stand and hear my voice
a wordless scream at ancient power
it breaks against stone
i softly leave you crying…
i cannot hold what you devour
the sacrifice of penance
in the holy hour
These lyrics intensely resonate with atheistic ideologies about the near-futility of religion. The brooding music lures the listener into a transcendent trance. Smith had not fully developed his voice during the Faith recordings, and yet his ghostly vocals hold a strange sway, seemingly emanating from an otherwordly cathedral.
“Faith” the song has a riveting, bleak beauty. It is a fitting ending to a stunningly subtle album, and it elaborates on the ideas first touched on in “The Holy Hour”, asserting that there is nothing left but faith. Not a corrosive faith in supernatural deities, mind you, but a more buoyant faith in humanity. The song nicely enfolds the emotions of anger and angst, and even wonder and joy at being alive.
“Primary” is the second song on Faith and is the most upbeat number on an album otherwise overcast with somber skies. This is not to suggest that it is a happy song, but it is vigorously driven by chugging bass guitars that purely embody the post-punk ethos. Thematically the song is a topic that Smith forever obsesses over” the inexorable decay of youth as we move through life.
“Other Voices”, the third track, is sublime for its echoing, cavernous vocal effects, and a bassline that betrays a vaguely funky beat. The poetic and dreamy “All Cats Are Grey” and the deliciously gloomy and ever-so-slightly cheesy “Funeral Party” further imbue the album with murky colors and an austere impressionistic sense.
“Doubt” is the song that some fans profess to be the weakest on the album, one that destabilizes the album’s morose mood with its frenzied punk aesthetic. But “Doubt” is an essential piece to move the album forward. Its vitriol offers odd respite in such a doom-laden atmosphere; sometimes melancholy is too muted an emotion, and we need the exuberance of anger to help us re-focus our energies.
“Drowning Man” the penultimate song, is perhaps the centerpiece of Faith, and the glum glue that holds the whole thing together. The song was inspired by the literary fantasy Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake. In the story, the character of Fuschia ends up accidentally drowning herself owing to heartbreak. The song covers this aspect of the story. Musically it epitomizes the icy sting of post-punk and captivates the senses with its drum pad and “claptrap” effects. It hypnotically captures the suffocating sense of being swept away in a flood.
Faith comes from a haunted, solipsistic place. Every Cure album abounds in merits, but Faith seems to be the one that is the most obsession-inducing. It seduces you into its tormented world, and try as you might, you cannot escape. You are lured back time and time again into Faith’s dark poetic soundscape.
Note: To celebrate Faith’s 40th anniversary, the album is being pressed on a picture disc for the first time. The new pressing was available exclusively as part of Record Store Day 2021.