A critic once called Disintegration “about as fun as losing a limb.” But really, isn’t that the point? It’s not supposed to make you feel good – Disintegration is special because of how not fun it is.
A little over 10 years ago, I had my first real rough patch. My grandmother died – it was my first real experience with death – and we were incredibly close. I wanted to take time to mourn the loss of her, to stand there and watch as she descended into the ground and the dirt covered her. Disintegration allowed me to take time with my grief.
This, alongside finding out my first boyfriend – who was my first everything – had cheated on me. I was devastated. And Disintegration allowed me to revel in my pain. The album was there through a lot of really bad “firsts”. But despite all the loss, this album remained a true constant in my life. I like to think of it as the album that understands me when I’m at my lowest. It doesn’t try to coerce me out of my depression but allows me to wallow in it. That’s why it’s special.
It’s an album that pulls you under during the two and a half minute intro of “Plainsong”, it’s about the tear inducing sound effects of glass shattering in the title track, and it’s about the hopelessness of the last gasping breath of “Untitled” as the album slips away. There’s nothing fun about it, and why should an album necessarily make you feel good?
So, let’s get the backstory of Disintegration. In 1987 the Cure had come off of their major hit “Just Like Heaven” from their double LP Kiss Me – an overall pop rock album with tinges of melancholy in all the right places. Their final single “Hot, Hot, Hot!”, as we heard, was a dancey sort of jangly song that reflected a more upbeat version of The Cure. It featured Robert Smith’s weird vocal nuances which enhanced his cuddly onstage personae, with signature bright red lipstick, black eyeshadow, and koosh ball hair, his aesthetic had become commonplace in their popular music videos
As I’m sure you know, Kiss Me was quite different from a lot of The Cure’s earliest recordings, especially Pornography, Faith, and Seventeen Seconds. During the early 1980s, Robert wanted to prove his critics wrong after writing these dismal albums – he could, in fact, write a pop song and not just dire elegies about death and longing.
Well, Robert was so good at it that he became a revered pop star of the 1980s. For example, you had “The Lovecats”, “Close to Me”, “The Walk”, and “The Caterpillar” – all perfect, melodic pop hits which came from a band that also wrote moody, depressive singles such as “The Hanging Garden”, “Charlotte Sometimes”, and “A Forest”. It’s good to note that even if the poppier albums were more accessible to a larger group of people, The Cure managed to keep things a bit downtrodden by introducing a bit of darkness in either the lyrics or the overall atmosphere. And, personally, I believe this element of realness is why so many flocked to The Cure.
At the end of 1987 going into 1988, there’s an insane amount of stardom that Robert and his band have found from their past few releases including Kiss Me and Head on the Door from 1985 – they now filled huge arenas and they were basically a stadium rock band. His newfound fame changed him, he says: “I’d become really conceited, not just pretending to be a pop star, but living it. I realized that I couldn’t go on like that.”
Their star power led Robert to be recognized everywhere he went, something he absolutely hated. Robert, if he could choose, preferred to play mid-sized venues that were only half attended – so he says. And, most of all, he wanted to be left alone to walk around the London streets as a stranger.
Despite disguises such as hats, flat hair, and no makeup, he was still recognizable with his white high-top tennis shoes, and 30 or so fans still camped outside his London apartment daily. He moved out of London and to Sussex with his soon-to-be wife, Mary Poole, to get away from city life and be more of a recluse. And with his departure from London, so began his self-induced hibernation in which he started to record alone, deciding that if his bandmates didn’t like his new demos, it would be a Robert Smith solo album.
And why was Robert skeptical to share his new demos with his bandmates? Well, he was taking another drastic turn in his writing style – he was visiting the dark again, feeling unsure if they were the right fit for The Cure’s more uplifting sounds as of late.
The fact that he would be turning thirty on April 21, 1989 was a huge deal – and was his greatest source of depression at that time. Later on Robert said, “The theme of most of the songs [on Disintegration] that would depress people is purely about age – [it’s about] what happens with age, and your inability to feel as keenly, and that sense of loss all the time.”
All of his musical heroes had made their pinnacle albums before the age of thirty including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix. Robert had also promised himself long ago that if he even lived to be 30 that he would not be fronting a band. But here he was, heading one of the most well-loved bands in the entire world.
Through this upsetting realization he decided he had one year left to create an album he deemed as his best yet. And this is what lead to Disintegration. Robert began dropping LSD as frequently as he did during The Glove sessions with Steve Severin from Siouxsie and the Banshees. But this time he was doing drugs to hunt down the dark crevices of his mind and to stay there – no fun was to be had this time around. He had decided he wanted to make an introspective record like The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography – one of the most dreadful and wonderful albums ever made, which the critics often called violent. Or as Robert called it: “Another miserable album from that same old miserable band.”
Robert introduced the demos to the rest of The Cure. While they were curious about Robert’s unsuspecting moroseness after the semi-uplifting Kiss Me, they agreed the demos were great. Robert said, “The others thought I lost the plot. They were still caught up with the idea that we were becoming a really famous band, and they weren’t grasping that the music I wanted to make was incredibly morose and downbeat.”
But despite this, the band met at the home of drummer Boris Williams in Southwest England to begin work on the album. And later, they reconvened at Hook End Studios with co-producer David M. Allen in Oxfordshire to finish it.
In order to resurrect the side of The Cure he thought he’d neglected for too long, Robert managed to make the process of recording about as fun as losing a limb. He would stop talking to his bandmates during sessions and continued to take hallucinogens to create an uncomfortable mood, saying,”I decided I would be monk-like and not talk to anyone, I wanted an environment that was slightly unpleasant.” Pretentious yes, but in hindsight, this was a great idea in order to achieve that level of misery Robert was going for – and it shows. Personally, I’ve often wondered myself how The Cure got into such a depressive state of mind to create something so delicately dreadful. And this is how: Robert literally made everyone as miserable as possible.
An additional source of stress was from Lol Tolhurst’s alcoholism. As a founding member of The Cure, Robert had put up with Lol’s drinking problem for the past couple years and watched it get increasingly worse during the Kissing Tour in 1987. He’d become the punching bag of the band and the butt of every joke since he was incapable of playing his instruments most of the time (which started as drums, then synths, then was demoded to percussion). It was rare if Lol could even function much at all.
The band had recruited Roger O’Donnell for the Kissing Tour. He had previously played synths for Thompson Twins and the Psychedelic Furs but Robert had finally named him a member of the Cure during the creation of Disintegration. O’Donnell was an important part of the album’s process, adding the perfectly painful synth melodies that built the atmosphere of the album.
The introduction of O’Donnell left no real reason for Lol to hang around except for Robert’s loyalty to him. But it ended in December 1988 at a listening party for Disintegration. In a drunken stupor, Lol exclaimed: “Half is good and half is shit!” And in the early months of 1989, Robert officially kicked Lol out of the band (which led to a big lawsuit a couple years later down the line but we won’t get into that now).
The Cure’s label Elektra had their own critiques saying Robert was committing commercial suicide and was being willfully obscure in the album’s execution. Robert said, “I thought it was my masterpiece and they thought it was shit.” Nevertheless, Robert put out the record he’d longed to make for so many years – his prized work of macabre genius.
In April of 1989, the first single “Lullaby” was released – it became The Cure’s highest charting single to this day. And they also won Best Music Video of 1989 at the Brits. The “Lullaby” single was followed by the Disintegration album release in early May. With mixed reviews, some called it a “mind-blowingly and stunningly complete album” while Melody Maker asked: “How can a group this disturbing and depressing be so popular?”
But Disintegration did have its charming bits. “Lovesong” was the first actual, straight-up love song Robert ever wrote, as a wedding present to Mary. It is also the only song on the album to clock in at under 4 minutes – standard pop song time – and it reached number 2 in the American charts.
Robert called Disintegration a test for new-found fans saying, “I wanted people to like the group for the right reasons – because it’s different to everything else and not easily accessible. It’s a bit of a cross generalization but people whose favorite Cure albums are Pornography and Disintegration are generally more alert and have thought of things.”
So at the end of it all, Robert did it, didn’t he? Before the age of 30 he’d created the massive masterpiece called Disintegration.
Andi Harriman is a writer and DJ living in New York City with an emphasis on all things dark and Eighties-centric. She is the author of the book Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace: The Worldwide Compendium of Postpunk and Goth in the 1980s and her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Noisey, Bandcamp Daily, Electronic Beats and LA Weekly, to name a few, while acting as contributing editor to Post-Punk.com.
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