Have you ever really, really, wanted something but when you finally achieved it, suddenly found that you were not so sure?
This is in some ways the situation Robert Smith (born 21 April 1959) found himself in with Disintegration (released May 1989). He wanted The Cure to make a legendary record – ‘a grand statement’ - before he was 30, but when the album was a smash, spawned several hit singles, and the band started filling stadiums right across the US, he was overwhelmed and wanted to withdraw. "Despite my best efforts, actually [the band has] become everything that I didn't want us to become […] It's reached a stage where I personally can't cope with it,” he said, "it was never our intention to become as big as this."
Following the success of Kiss me, Kiss me, Kiss me (1987) Smith had wanted to return to the dark, gothic roots of The Cure’s earlier Pornography period. Some of the mood for Disintegration he created deliberately by isolating himself, taking hallucinogenic drugs, and reportedly trying to create an ‘unpleasant environment’ to match the album’s ambience. On the other hand, some of the storm clouds that arrived were out of his control, such as the breakdown in his relationship with his childhood friend and bandmate Lol Tolhurst during the recording, and the pressure exercised by The Cure’s record company, who considered the album to be ‘commercial suicide’ and wanted to change it.
Perhaps by chance this ‘witches brew’ of events is reflected in the lyrics of the last two tracks on the album. Homesick tells the story of attaining your dreams only to see them collapse: “The everything you win turns to nothing today”; while Untitled returns to the theme of the pointlessness of trying: “And now the time has gone, another time undone… I’ll never lose this pain, never dream of you again.” It could so easily have been cult fare for the ears of English teenage goths, but with the special touch of The Cure’s fairydust this album crossed over into the mainstream, broke the American market and was a massive global success.
The four big singles culled from the album were Lullaby, Pictures of You, Fascination Street, and Lovesong.The former was based on the stories that Smith’s father used to tell him before he went to bed; perversely they typically had dark and disturbing endings. Pictures of You evokes the feelings that emerge from looking through old photos of someone you used to love; the seething Fascination Street has a wonderful driving bassline – perhaps Simon Gallup’s favoured Gibson Thunderbird, and touch of psychedelic guitar - Porl Thompson and Robert Smith, possibly playing again the Fender Bass VI like in Pictures Of You- while the latter tune, and in some ways the most surprising on the album, Lovesong, is a direct message of love to the woman who Smith was about to marry.
At the dark heart of the album are the fantastically threatening Prayers for Rain with its great guitar hook; Disintegration “both of us knew how the end always is”; Closedown, which – despite referring to Smith’s own deteriorating mental state - has an especially catchy guitar melody to open; and the sad lament of a drowning relationship in The Same Deep Water as You. In some ways the grand opening track, Plainsong, with its wind chimes full of ominous portent, synths, and heavy droning guitar, evokes perfectly what is about to come.
Disintegration remains The Cure’s best-selling album and for good reason. Smith and his bandmates, whatever their objectives, personal troubles and confusion, produced a masterpiece that always rewards a further listen.