It’s pretty much the album dry ice was invented for.
“Whenever I’m alone with you/“You make me feel like I am young again…”
The story goes that the unashamed romance of ‘Lovesong’, the third single from The Cure’s classic album ‘Disintegration’, was composed as a wedding gift from Robert Smith to his wife. Mary.
OK, hats off, Robert, you win – that definitely beats any pair of reassuringly expensive earrings. Fast forward 30 years and for many Cure fans, those same lyrics now neatly encapsulate the experience of re-listening to the band’s remarkable eighth album.
Like an old photograph, ‘Disintegration’ has the power to transport you back to when you first heard it, dredging up long-forgotten faces and feelings.
Today, ‘Disintegration’ turns 30. Happy birthday, ‘Disintegration’. It’s hardly a controversial opinion, but surely it has to be the finest Cure album. Fair enough, ‘Pornography’ and ‘Faith’ are more visceral, and ‘Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me’, ‘The Head OnThe Door’ and ‘Wish’ get to flash the group’s more famous pop side, but nothing captures their windswept, glacial magnificence more perfectly than this 1989 masterpiece. It’s pretty much the album dry ice was invented for.
From the disarmingly pretty, storm-signalling chimes that usher in monumental opener ‘Plainsong’, to the lonely accordion chords that bring final track ‘Untitled’ to a close 71 minutes later, it’s a beautiful, bleak and broken-hearted wander through Smith’s anguished state-of-mind as he contemplated his own 30th birthday. Most people cope with freaking out about entering their fourth-decade by getting a terrible tattoo or base jumping; Smith wrote ‘Disintegration’. Again, hats off, Robert.
The usual shorthand used to describe ‘Disintegration’ is ‘gloomy’, but that’s reductive. There’s so much more going on: it’s autumnal, it’s immersive, it’s hypnotic and it’s elemental. Songs like ‘Fascination Street’, ‘Prayers For Rain’ and the howling title track lash like a torrential storm, and the murky, dark green album sleeve, which casts Smith as a kind of late 80s, back-combed Ophelia, is the perfect visual representation of the epic, waterlogged wonder that is ‘The Same Deep Water As You’. Indeed, the word ‘rain’ is repeated throughout the album and it’s impossible to shake off the feeling of being soaked to the skin and at the mercy of untamed natural forces.
There’s a pervading sense of desperation, too. “I’m running out of time,” Smith panics in ‘Closedown’, while the title track tarnishes the promises made in ‘Lovesong’, the guitars snarling and Smith spitting out a stream of consciousness that talks of “treachery” and “trickery” and laments “Songs about happiness murmured in dreams / When the both of us knew how the end always is.”
Even in his unhappiest moments, though, Smith can’t quite shake off his genius ability to write brain-invading pop songs. So there’s no love cats or caterpillar girls here, but there is a spider man, who haunts musical bad trip ‘Lullaby’, a song that teeters between novelty and nightmare. And ‘Lovesong’, which even managed to reach the heights of number two in the Billboard charts in the US, is three-and-a-half minutes of lovelorn perfection.
But it’s the glorious, aching ‘Pictures Of You’ that really holds the whole thing together, Smith hurling nostalgia, regret and grief onto his creative bonfire, as the band conjure a glittering blizzard of sound behind him. Heartbreak has never sounded so enticing.
Much has been written about the trying circumstances under which the album was recorded. Smith’s creeping fears about his own mortality and desire to create a special record clashed badly with co-founder Lol Tolhurst’s destabilising alcoholism. The former friends’ relationship had, well, disintegrated so entirely by the time the album was finished that Tolhurst’s contribution was famously reduced to the words “Other instrument” in the sleeve notes. Ouch.
Of course, whether a happy camp could have made ‘Disintegration’ seems unlikely. Knowing that it took its toll on its creators only makes it more special, especially when you consider that the likes of Ride, The Killers, DIIV and countless others would likely be very different bands now if it hadn’t have been for those fraught weeks Smith and co spent in the Oxfordshire countryside.
So, once again, happy birthday Disintegration. As Robert sings on Lovesong:
“However far away, I will always love you.”