The Cure's Pornography is so much more than just the ponderously murky, suicide-inducing effort it's often made out to be.
The idea of pornography is, of course, titillating for some, abhorrent to others. Still others exhibit muddled feelings about it, grudgingly acknowledging pornography’s ability to arouse while simultaneously harboring shame over it. The Cure’s Robert Smith gave the Pornography title to his dour 1982 masterwork in order to imbue new life into the notion of pornography. Typically, pornography is shocking to the senses; even those who like it are jolted from their mundane reveries into an at times violent, vulgar world. Of course, this is why people like it -- it proffers a blunt antidote to bland reality.
Smith’s conceptual experiment in “didactic diction” was a success. By taking aword laden with overtly "perverse" sexual associations and audaciously affixing it to an assemblage of tunes that, surface-wise, anyway, have very little to do with the original concept, he transformed the word’s meaning, or at least infused it with daringly new dimensions. Whereas before the word “pornography” had a connotative atmosphere of (for some) disturbingly graphic eros, now it could take on an aura of existential terror.
Pornography, the Cure's 1982 album, positively drips with dreariness. And yet, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole it as just an exercise in eerie pathos. Otherworldly, meditatively mercurial, spiritually harrowing -- these ideas encapsulate the complex compelling nature of the album because it's so much more than just the ponderously murky, suicide-inducing effort it's often made out to be. It clashes with nuanced contradictions; it's at once sparse and dense, clamoring and quiet. It gives rise to the paradoxical idea of poetic cacophony. Discordance never sounded so sublime.
To be sure, Pornography might have veered recklessly into the terrain of overwrought kitsch, like much of the gothic output of the '80s. Think Sisters of Mercy, whose fog-shrouded songs, while worthy in their own way, too readily date themselves, and are too eagerly branded as the genre’s emblematic aesthetic. The Sisters’ signature sound features vocals that are garishly grave and music that is by turns cheaply cinematic and self-consciously sepulchral -- all ornamented with lyrics that tediously indulge tropes.
On the other hand, Smith was able to rein in such horrid histrionics and curtail genre gimmicks and craft a remarkably mature post-punk classic. Pornography is frequently cited as the paradigmatic album of '80s goth, and indeed, no other album of that genre can hope to measure up to its gorgeously grandiose gloom. The album itself is surprisingly compact, with a total of eight songs clocking in at around 30 minutes. Its brevity lends it its gravity. All of the songs are imperative inclusions in order to sculpt cohesiveness and give the album a thematic seamlessness. For me, six are absolute stunners, while two are merely "very good". So I will touch on those six, keeping in mind, nonetheless, the necessary nature of the others.
"One Hundred Years" is an opener of invigorating ferocity. Its militant fervor is matched with lyrics about the nihilistic futility of combat and of life in general. The opening line, "It doesn't matter if we all die" is jarring for its almost beatific negation of existence. When the song crescendos with “a sound like a
tiger thrashing in the water/ over and over/ we die one after the other over and over/ we die one after the other”, it eviscerates our suspicions that the album is some lame simulation of teenaged angst. Instead, we learn, we are in for a layered literary interrogation of dark disquiet.
The tribal menace of "Hanging Garden", an animal-themed song, invokes a primitive sensibility. It was the lead single for Pornography and gave early Cure fans a taste of the more belligerent side of the band, which had theretofore exuded a calm solemnity, but never such bestial brooding. “Hanging Garden” is not the best track on Pornography, by far, but it's more accessible than the others, with its potent psychedelic sonics and lyrics, and therefore the one most likely to lure in reluctant listeners. For even though Pornography is not for everyone, it most certainly is for those Cure fans who are hesitant to sample the seamier side of the band.
With its death-march beat, "Siamese Twins" lyrically mirrors this doom-infused rhythm, exploring the topic of loveless sex with a prostitute, which results in a strangely zombified state. “Is it always like this?” is the wailed refrain that haunts long after the song has ceased. It’s the only song that overtly references the album title, imagistically-speaking. And even then, the song is not necessarily about sex, but rather about the intangibility of fulfillment and the dread of solitude.
"Figurehead" is the centerpiece of Pornography, and the best “dark” song in The Cure’s catalogue. “Figurehead” is a baroquely morose opera whose startlingly surrealistic lyrics summon repressed guilt that gnaws like "spiders inside" and that creepily calls forth "the dust of a vision of hell". "Figurehead" sounds like it was recorded in a dungeon before time began.
"Strange Day" is seductively mystical with its lushly dark tones and apocalyptic lyrics. Here, Smith revels in the "eye/blind" motif, seeming to suggest that slipping away into oblivion can be an almost lucidly blissful experience.
"Pornography" (the song) is a perfectly trippy and creepy coda. The album's architecture builds from exhilarating bellicosity ("One Hundred Years"), to bleak tirades ("Short Term Effect" through "Figurehead") to sullen metaphysics ("Strange Day" and "Cold") to a final foray into aggressive avant-garde aesthetics. The song is one part actual sonics and one part manic flurry of TV sounds (apparently a televised debate about pornography), yet the voices are reversed for added freaky effect. Here, as elsewhere, deteriorating mental states is the central lyrical topic, explored through viciously bitter vocals and driven home by a horror movie synth line and insane asylum drums. The song radiates a truly terrifying vibe of psychosis, as the protagonist has clearly disintegrated into lunacy. Puritanical prudes love to excoriate any form of sexual expression, especially the crude sort, in media and the arts.
On the other hand, the anti-Puritans overcompensate in the opposite direction by suffusing all aspects of media with explicit sexual imagery. Both factions do pornography (and themselves, by extension) a disservice, by slandering it or sanctifying it. By self-righteously ranting about pornography or hyperbolically elevating it to the status of the sacred, people draw attention to something that exists for itself and will always exist for itself, and doesn’t need society’s puerile commentary to validate or negate it. Naked couples and groups copulating for the voyeuristic pleasure of others is just reality. That some find pornography sordidly irreverent to the sanctity of purity is ultimately immaterial to those who propagate it.
Sexual vice may be what most people think of when they hear the word "pornography", but with his 1983 album, Smith effectively metamorphosed the meaning of the word, digging out its nuances and steeping it in an aura of metaphysical torment. Not only is Pornography a seminal Cure album, but it iconically captures the sinister eloquence of a controversial concept. In so doing, the album gives us some of the best and bleakest music of the '80s.
Clockwise Cat founder and editor Alison Ross has been published here, there, elsewhere, and nowhere. She is mother to two cats and three poetry chapbooks, released by Fowlpox Press and dancing girl press. Links to her work (which includes poetry, editorials, and reviews) can be found at SymmetryOfBirds.