The Cure, Disintegration, 1989

There is no album in my collection that has been played as much as this one. This was my falling asleep album for years. I played it at night until it became a ritual, night after night, Disintegration was my soundtrack to slumber. I bought it in 1989 the day it came out (Robert Smith’s birthday…April 27?) I wore out one CD copy simply from overplaying. I’m reviewing here the new double 180g LP version that came out in 2010, which sounds pretty great. I guess one annoying thing about the double vinyl is that it breaks up the flow of the songs. This wouldn’t be a problem, but when you’ve heard an album several hundred times (several thousand?) on CD, it makes for quite a different listening experience having to turn the LP over every three songs.

I really like the consistency of the sound palette and recording levels on Disintegration. There is nothing that particularly jars here.  I don’t find it depressing at all. The uplifting, lovely melancholia is dreamy and blissful. It’s an album I’ve never grown tired of (only tired to). I think this has been remastered for the new vinyl version, but that was quite unnecessary. The original CD still sounds as good as anything recorded nowadays. If anything, due to compression, sound quality deteriorated over the 90s and 00s. The original Disintegration on CD is still one great sounding album. “Recorded to be played loud, so turn it up!” exhorts the inner sleeve. Okay, roll with it…

Plainsongopens this mammoth album with a monumental crash.  Delicate jingle bells twinkle away for twenty seconds before a swathe of huge synth chords come thundering down, six notes played in succession over a bashed snare drum. Those bells seem to melt into some higher pitch, the bass growls beneath all of it, and then the guitar comes on, deliberately slowed down half a pitch, as if to drag the listener backwards. This all goes for two and a half minutes before the vocal starts, which is a dialogue between a pair of abject teenager lovers, the girl’s misery too profound for the boy. It’s as if she’s about to offer him a suicide pact: “And it’s so cold / It’s like the cold if you were dead.” She’s on her last tether and he can’t comprehend a word of it. Or she’s simply breaking up with him, and the tone of plainsong is how he feels. ‘Plainsong’ refers to a type of music, a body of traditional songs which used the liturgies of the Roman Catholic church. Wiki says “Plainsong is monophonic consisting of a single, unaccompanied melodic line. It often uses the lengthy reverberations and resonant modes of cathedrals to create harmonies,” which explain’s the lengthy reverberations and resonant modes you hear here. I don’t know about monophonic, but certainly something cathedral-like (bells) and gothic architecture has infused the atmosphere. One of the greatest opening songs ever.

Pictures of You… a weird warped backwards twinkling bell sound (that you hear elsewhere on the record) segues the end of “Plainsong” into “Pictures of You,” surely the best song here. Again, the guitar has the same slowed-down-by-half-a-pitch sound about it, that features across most of the album. After the twinkling bells, the song crashes into its rhythm like the first one, though less dramatically this time, and then this monumental seven-plus minute track warbles away with that beautiful guitar work for at least two of those minutes before the vocals even start. If in “Plainsong” the lovers were breaking up, “Pictures Of You” takes places years later, the boy this time reminiscing on the girl, as he browses his photo album. The relationship was passionate and important back then, he was so young, they were teenagers and it seemed like the whole world to him, but she “finally found all [her] courage to let it all go” – which suggests she became an adult, she grew up and moved on, and he, well he was devastated. “If only I’d thought of the right words / I could have held onto your heart” he pines. The rumbling instrumentation always chiming away in the background adds gravitas to the mood. Again, like the first song, it’s the girl’s misery that is couched in incomprehensible terms: “Slow drowned you were angels / So much more than anything.” Seven minutes is too short. Love the ending, the guitar kind of echoes out in deliberate stages. Like all good Cure songs, lyrically it’s a bit too melodramatic, but between this and “Plainsong,” Smith nails that can’t-let-go misery every person feels when they’re being let go for the first time.

Closedown… it took me a long time to enjoy this song way back in 1989. It was always the dud on the album. Compared to “Pictures” it seemed tuneless. It starts off with quite dense drumming, followed by a huge synth sweep, and then that slowpitch guitar thing again. It’s the same song practically, with a different melody. Here he could well be singing about growing old. (Smith was soon turning 30…practically geriatric). It’s one of those Cure songs, where the lyrics sort of come on, tell a quick story and leave again, no chorus, no nothing, no major changes. That’s why it never registered with me for a long time, it doesn’t really go anywhere. “If only I could fill my heart with love,” he sings, a fairly typical kind of Smith line. Perhaps a bit synth-heavy in places, but made up for by that beautifully forlorn guitar sound and that soft tribal drumming which recalls the rhythms on 1983 album, Pornography.

Lovesong I always had a love/hate relationship with this song. To me it seemed lyrically banal, a bit trite (still does a little) and the tune also seems relatively simple compared to other songs here. It has a whimsy that kind of annoyed me for a few years. Then I got to a point where I started to feel that the lyric was more meaningful than I’d realized; that he really is singing a love song, no matter how banal it seems and it’s not really something you hear many bands do in such a straightforward way.  It’s got a big pop beat and a nice little noodly keyboard line. He sings in a softer voice here. But still, for a long time I could never understand why this song was so popular. The instrumental break between verses seems kind of silly to me, but the main one coming after the chorus is quite good. “Whenever I’m alone with you,” Smith sings, his voice rising into high breathy notes on the words ‘with you’.

Last Dancewas the song that we (read: me and 1989 girlfriend) always hated. Even more so than “Closedown.” I can’t fathom why now. I think it was because the song doesn’t change much, and nor does it carry you along in its melody the way the long songs on Side Three do. Again, “Last Dance” fits into the concept here. This time it’s as if he’s met back up with the girl many years later: “And even if we drink / I don’t think we would kiss / In the way that we did when the woman was only a girl.” And this is a strange line, because he moves from first person plural, we, to third person in the same sentence, suggesting that it’s all in his head. He’s imagining what it would be like if she were here with him now and he concludes that the spark would be gone: “Christmas falls late now / Flatter and colder / And never as cold as when we used to fall.” A picture of  a man hanging on to things he can’t let go of.

Lullaby…a great pop song, not creepy in my opinion, just unusual. Cool in that it’s kind of imaginary. It’s set in some fictional world of the imagination. And the instrumentation is good here – a plinky plonk keyboard/string sound that ‘bounces’ along and captures the feel of a spider creeping along its web. This is an unusual Robert Smith vocal, mostly whisper-sung. A bogus theory to be sure but I’ve always imagined this song to be about Smith singing to his male fans: “My precious boy.” He’s kind of inviting you into his Cure-lair, where the “spiderman is always hungry” for your fandom (and your money) and it’s not hard to imagine Smith as the spiderman with his big spiky hairdo. Really, one of the more stranger pop songs out there, but on the flip side this also has a banality that makes it quintessential ‘pop’ in the pure teenage sense.

Fascination Street…here’s another one that was never a favourite of mine for a long time. But “Fascination Street” develops in your mind slowly like a photograph. It’s easily the rockiest song here so far. Lyrically I’d always imagined it to be about The Cure as a curio, something to be fascinated by, with Smith as the ‘curator’ of this strange museum.  But no. Apparently it has something to do with the New Orleans Mardi Gras. It has this grinding bassline and some unusual sounding high whiny pitched guitar effects sliding about in the background. The vocal is sung with a snarl. Everything grinds together in quite a noisy way. All those freaky horror-movie echo effects make this sound more like classic Pornography-era Cure but with a better sound and more accessible melody. The Cure prove here that they can rock as well as mope.

Prayers For Rain…as great as Sides One and Two are, Side Three kicks ass. Disc One is more poppy. This disc is where they get seriously doomy. After “Pictures Of You,” the next three songs are my favourites. This one has a menacing vibe, a big sound, some crashing drums, and thematically, the tone and atmosphere sound like bad weather. Not so much a storm but just heavy rain man. The lyrics are nihilistic: “I suffocate, I breathe in dirt / And nowhere shines but desolate / And drab the hours all spent on killing time again / All waiting for the rain.” This is like ’10:15 Saturday Night’ from Three Imaginary Boys magnified to an anthem. Smith sings brilliantly here, a kind of pout, a touch of snarl. If he was moping about being dropped before, this time he’s really pissed off. “You capture me / Entangle me in hopelessness and prayers for rain,” and the song goes forever, until it weirds out in the tail end with backwards effects.

The Same Deep Water As You…just look at the title. It’s hard, really hard to understand that girl from “Plainsong.” “‘The shallow drowned lose less than we’, you breathe / The strangest twist upon your lips.” If the last song was pissed off, this one is depressed. This one really is hopeless, fatalistic. Again, Smith uses boy/girl dialogue for lyrics. This is more gothy in an 80s way; big swathes of keyboards and more slowpitch guitar. And here they up the ante in terms of length too. I’ve always liked how this song sounds like a continuation of the one before. I just love the way it goes on for about 9 minutes or something. It’s probably a bit more simple than the two songs either side of it. This is the point at which you feel yourself drifting off to sleep; the musical equivalent of hearing rain fall on a corrugated iron roof. The songs starts and finishes with the sound of rain and thunder. You can hear the rain right throughout the song. There’s something primal about it that gets right under your skin. It just makes so much sense. It has that dreamy faraway effect. Stops me in my tracks. Makes me want to lie down. Best played at night, or on rainy days. It slow-trails out, that woozy guitar, the rain, the low humming keyboard in the background. The thunder. If I sound like I’m going on, that’s because the song does, in a good way, and I think that’s one of its strengths.

Disintegration…now we reach the album’s climax. “It’s easier for me to get closer to heaven than ever feel whole again,” despairs Smith, as if he’d just swallowed a text on Lacan. This is a killer track all about getting old and going over the hill and losing your marbles I guess. Instead of bells this one uses a broken glass sound throughout for thematic effect. Great guitar line in the opening, just repeating the same thing over and over. There’s quite a noticeable pick up of pace here. This has one of the best vocals on the whole album; very harrowing, almost demented. There’s a sweetly weird child’s choir effect under his voice in places, and another interesting effect – what appears to be a backwards echo where you hear the voice arriving before the word itself arrives. I love how this builds from verse to verse in a one-two-three pattern, making six verses altogether. The vocal builds to real intensity: “Holding it up behind my head again / Cut in deep to the heart of the bone again / Round and round and round its coming apart again,” and desperation: “Now that I know that I’m breaking to pieces / I’ll pull out my heart and I’ll feed it to anyone.”  And it gets nastier too, and punkier, and builds to a total crescendo of utter despair.  Big crash at the end followed by a delicate guitar arpeggio repeating and trailing out.

Homesick…the next two tracks are like coda. “Homesick” conjures up a nostalgic feeling with a pretty piano riff and that winsome guitar riffing. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was an instrumental, so long does it take before the lyrics start. There’s a heavy bass thundering behind the distant-storm of a soundscape and here, Smith’s half-spoken half-sung vocal sounds similar to how it would sound on “Harold & Joe,” the b-side to non-album single “Never Enough” released the following year. The piano tinkles away jazzily throughout most of the song, and everything is brought into the mix to create a full sound that pretty much resembles the tone of the whole album. “Inspire in me the desire in me to never go home.” Is that homesickness? Violin/Cello and piano take the song out beautifully.

Untitled…and we’re back in the sonic territory of Side One. The vocal is mixed more up front and seems quite friendly and apologetic. The same sounds; slowpitch guitar; spidery watery fretwork; crashing echoing snare drum. The song does work as a finale. It has a real kind of resigned quality about it; the downbeat, the downer beat. A simple affair in the vein of “Lovesong.” “Feeling the monster climb deeper inside of me / Feeling him gnawing my heart away hungrily” he sings but this time in a much more matter of fact vocal instead of the harrowed Smith singing from across a canyon into a snowstorm.

This is Alan Bumstead’s #1 Favourite Album of the 90s


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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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4 Responses to The Cure, Disintegration, 1989

  1. I always find myself singing to every word of the songs…I can’t pick which is the best song in the album…Nuff said, it is also my all time favorite album… :)

  2. ElGonzi says:

    Hi! this is a very good review.
    My uncle brought this to me from the US (I’m in Peru) in July or August 1989 and after hearing the whole LP for the first time, I quickly realized that I had just heard the best Cure album up to that date (and up to date).
    The sound, the layers of sounds, the songs, the drumming, the lyrics, etc. everything was great.
    I already have the remastered CD version but I’ll go for the vinyl too.
    BTW, my 10yo nephew loves Disintegration!~

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