Though it was the first Cure album made specifically for CD, Disintegration also marked the end of an era. Prior to its release, Laurence Tolhurst, the last of the band’s founding line-up aside from Robert Smith, was fired. The other members of The Cure believed Tolhurst wasn’t contributing to the band, apparently due to drinking and drug abuse. Tolhurst, who thought he played a larger creative role, unsuccessfully attempted to sue Robert Smith and Fiction Records over royalties while claiming co-ownership of the name The Cure. Smith cited legal matters as the reason Tolhurst was even credited on the album following his expulsion, though Tolhurst was given the ambiguous credit of “other instruments.”
Regardless Tolhurst’s contributions or lack thereof, Disintegration is a dark and yet dazzling album that wraps its hypnotic yarns around break ups, longing and other dark territory; dwelling mostly in unrequited romances and tainted loves. At an epic 72 minutes, it’s an exhausting example of angst as art at its finest. There’s enough melancholic brooding on the album for an entire black-garbed army of moping anemics. There’s also a sense of teenage romanticism – of invincible loves and endless kisses in the rain – that a number of the songs, most notably the quintessential Cure song “Pictures of You,” could have closed out high school proms for years following the album’s release.
Disintigration, if you can excuse such a geeky point of reference, is The Empire Strikes Back of Smith’s Cure trilogy; a middle section of a triptych flanked by 1982’s Pornography and 2000’s Bloodflowers. Okay, so maybe comparing Disintegration to The Empire Strikes Back is a stretch, but given that Disintegration is considered by so many to be the best of the trilogy, the Empire comparison isn’t so far-fetched. Given, the darkness of Empire would probably better align it with the dark themes of Pornography, but regardless, those three Cure albums are the ones that Smith believes best epitomizes the band he’s helmed for some 30 years.
Gloomier than their previous release, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the songs on Disintegration tend toward the dark and languid. There are ominous songs such as “Prayers for Rain” and its companion “The Same Deep Waters as You.” The former is some sort of plea for thirst to be slaked while the latter is the answer to the prayer in the form of a cold and lonely and loveless rain. These downtrodden pop dirges are joined by airy, soaring compositions such as the longing “Closedown” or the oogy nightmare of “Lullaby.” The former is hopeful despite its lyrics of solitude, even given its final sinister note; the later is a bouncy staccato nightmare, more quirk than spook.
Smith’s lyrics are nicely married to the music on the album, much of time veering toward the simple and immediately discernible. “Lovesong,” written for his then-girlfriend/future-wife Mary, is one of the album’s best examples of how straightforward lyrics can accomplish more than obfuscation and equivocal language. Each line Smith delivers has an air of genuineness and immediacy like some love letter so fresh that you can still smear the ink. On other songs, Smith lets the more gruesome self-loathing and notebook poetry of other goth lyricists temper his pain, with lines like “Now that I know that I’m breaking to pieces / I’ll pull out my heart / And I’ll feed it to anyone / Crying for sympathy ” or “It’s easier for me to get closer to heaven / Than ever feel whole again” on “Disintegration.”
Like his lyrics, Smith’s voice captures the emotional intensity of each of the songs. On the pounding “Fascination Street”—ushered in and propelled by Simon Gallup’s thudding bassline as Smith and Porl Thompson share echoing, shimmering guitar duties—Smith turns on his characteristic alley cat caterwauling as he sings of debauched Bourbon Street during New Orleans. For the New Order-ish title track, Smith’s voice builds in intensity as the song lumbers to its finale, Smith giving one last shout before his voice topples into a weary groan. Smith quiets to a whisper on the previously mentioned nocturne “Lullaby.” His voice nearly inaudible and yet distinctly childlike, you can almost see Smith with his blanket wrapped round his body, face peeking out of the covers before darting back into the security of the soft fabric. The quiet delivery gets the mood of “Lullaby” just right, adding a bit of impish dread to the mention of being eaten alive by the not so friendly neighborhood spiderman.
And of course there’s “Pictures of You,” inspired by a fire that broke out in Smith’s home that damaged several pictures of Mary, the same subject of “Lovesong.” The gloomy slow dance—shaved from seven and a half minutes to a more digestible four and three quarter minutes when released as a single—is a fine companion to the widescreen sound of the opener “Plainsong” and is one of those immediately recognizable songs that is linked to the band. “Pictures of You” was one of the first three or four Cure songs I’d ever heard (“Friday I’m in Love” and “Lovecats” also among the first) and the one that had the biggest impression on first listen.
Once the minute and a half introduction to “Pictures of You” gives way to the actual song, chimes and a well-placed wave of synth introduce a new yet still ethereal guitar melody. Smith’s lyrics of heartbreak and regret would maybe seem trite if read on their own, but once he delivers the opening lines “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you / That I almost believe that they’re real,” it’s hard to think of anything better to join the bubbles and echoes. It’s also hard to think of anything that would properly convey the bittersweet taste of a relationship ended prematurely or a missed connection.
Given that Disintegration ends with “Untitled,” a song where the narrator sings of an incompleteness of a feeling that has yet to be resolved, a lot of the album can be viewed as some kind of parting shot to an old boyfriend or girlfriend; a final mix tape in the locker with an ambiguous yet beautiful ending. It’s an attempt – perhaps like most attempts at emotional closure where love is concerned, a misguided one – to say all the right words and charming things before putting away those photographs forever, or at least for a little while.
Of course, those memories won’t fade off into the distance, but while you walk away with your head cast downward, kicking at the ground while licking the wounds off another romantic failure, Robert Smith will come up mewling right behind you with a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on and a big head of hair. He’ll read some of his latest love poetry, make you feel like you aren’t alone and, if you’re lucky, he may even tell you about this odd dream he had last night.