The Cure - Disintegration - Review
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critics' view

The late 1980s and early 90s were the Cure’s heyday—from an American perspective. It’s not just that they were making great music; they’d been making great music for roughly a decade already. But these were the years during which they coalesced into this whole iconic thing, the Cure—a sound, a look, and a sensibility that a few kids in every other high school could build whole identities around. Or at least whole wardrobes, decoration schemes, and notebook scribbles. One of my first big memories of listening to Disintegration involves wandering around the Colorado State Fair, from the agriculture show to the gang fights by the midway. This is a kind of reach I doubt Robert Smith ever imagined.

And yet there they were. You could say—again, from an American perspective—that it started with two things. There was Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, a 1987 double album that scatters in a lot of different directions. This is something the band always did well: listening to their “many moods” pop records is like exploring a new city, where every storefront and side street offers something unique. The same went for Standing on a Beach / Staring at the Sea, a collection of singles stretching from 1978 to 1985, that was critical to introducing this band to North Americans.

But mostly there was Disintegration: the record where Robert Smith approached turning 30, got engaged and then married, got annoyed with the way his band was working, and went off by himself to write something deep and serious. Disintegration does not “scatter.” It’s a single, grand, dense, continual, epic trip into core stuff the Cure did well. They’d always been good at this kind of album, too. If Kiss Me is a crowded, teeming city to explore, listening to Disintegration is more like standing in the middle of some vast, empty space—the kind of ocean or plain where you can see the horizon in all directions. You can sense that focus straight from the first minute, during which some wind chimes knock around in an empty void, and then the band bursts out with one of the most overwhelmingly grand openings I’ve ever heard on a pop record—a slow-motion, radiant synth figure of such scale that Sofia Coppola has plausibly used it to soundtrack the coronation of Louis XVI.

It’s no wonder this was meaningful to a lot of teenagers: The sheer emotional grandeur of tracks like that opener, “Plainsong,” make a great match for the feeling that everything in your life is all-consumingly important, whether it’s your all-consuming sadness, joy, longing, or whatever. And yet Disintegration is not a very teenagey album. It’s not an emo whine, and it’s not a big miserablist mope, either; one of its most popular tracks, “Lovesong,” was written by Smith as a wedding present for his wife. “I will always love you,” it keeps promising—not the way you sing that in a giddy love song, but like it’s a grave, solemn, bloody commitment. It was a top 10 hit in the U.S.

This is the thing: The album has a reputation as some huge, dark, crushingly depressive experience. It’s not entirely unearned. If you want to be crushingly depressed with Disintegration, or frustrated, or self-loathing, it’ll embrace you right back. But it’ll embrace other things, too. A whole lot of this album’s appeal is that it’s comforting, practically womblike—big, warm, slow, full of beauty and melody and even joy. The trick, I think, is how well it serves as a soundtrack to that feeling that everything around you is meaningful, whether it’s beautiful or horrible or sublime: This is an album for capital-R Romantics, not sulkers. It’s muscular (like on the title track), wistful (“Pictures of You”), ghostly (“Closedown”), seething (“Fascination Street”), and yeah, morose, but what’s striking is how each of those qualities can reach really, really far into your gut. It’s not a record for the dead-inside: Get far enough into this album, and I will almost guarantee you will feel some shit.

It’s monolithic, and most of the songs work the same way. A lot of them are mostly “intro”: The steady pulse of bass and guitar underneath, while glacially huge synth lines and liquid guitar melodies sparkle through the foreground. After a while, Smith’s voice comes in, echoing calmly, surveying the ocean around him. On Kiss Me he yowled and croaked and had fun with it, but he spends the length of this album turning in tense, restrained performances, calm and steely and grave. The parts where he actually lets loose and starts raving are explosive. The title track, for instance, plunges further and further into a frustrated wail before climaxing on one phrase: “Both of us knew/How the end always is.” (You can take that climax as harrowing or cathartic or just plain fun.) Songs like this aren’t organized around parts and movements, just steady repetition and emotional build. So at some point you realize that the intros aren’t really “intros,” not just a period of waiting for things to start: sinking into the sound of this album — a sound whose every element feels huge and magnificent — is the whole point.

Nitsuh Abebe
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