The Cure’s early-Eighties albums Faith and Pornography firmly cemented leader Robert Smith’s reputation as rock’s premier prophet of gloom: Pornography began with the line “Doesn’t matter if we all die.” The first line of Disintegration — “I think it’s dark and it looks like rain” — isn’t quite as dire, but it is emblematic of the fact that while Disintegration doesn’t break new ground for the band, it successfully refines what the Cure does best. Even if his work no longer packs the shock value it once did, Smith has finally gotten things unequivocally, utterly and completely right.
The Cure’s previous album, the breakthrough Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, was a jaunty, genre-hopping overview of the band’s career; this follow-up is a bleak meditation containing few obvious singles. Every song is in a minor key, and cold, dark and drowning images pervade the lyrics.
In Smith’s world, even good relationships are shot through with morbid overtones, and failed ones are the end of the world; he treats both with the same resigned melancholy. Not coincidentally, the most upbeat song is also the shortest, and even then, “Lovesong” describes an only temporary respite from misery — “Whenever I’m alone with you/ You make me feel like I’m fun again,” Smith warbles. A bit of black humor passes for comic relief. The ironically titled “Lullaby” is a nifty reversal of the Who’s “Boris the Spider.” Leisurely and monumental, these songs glide by like ocean liners. Typically, many bars go by before the vocal comes in on top of a tide of droning lead bass lines and cunningly layered synths. Slow tempos drive serenely through the gaping spaces in the music — self-pity never sounded so good. A liner note tells the listener, “This music has been mixed to be played loud so turn it up.” At low volume, the record’s subtleties could blend into the woodwork; at high volume you’re helplessly drawn in.
Many tracks are more than six minutes long, slow and attenuated, as if they were disintegrated pop tunes, right down to the way the rain on the nine-minute “Same Deep Water As You” slowly sizzles away, the way the cymbals on the majestic “Plainsong” sound like glass breaking in slow motion. And Smith abandons his trademark hurt-puppy-dog vocals and delivers his most inspired singing ever on the title track, about the way unfaithfulness dissolves a long-term relationship.
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Despite the title, Disintegration hangs together beautifully, creating and sustaining a mood of thoroughly self-absorbed gloom. If, as Smith has hinted, the Cure itself is about to disintegrate, this is a worthy summation.