Saturday, February 27, 2021

Robert Smith dives into the ugliness of his depression to paint his masterpiece

Way back in the first season of South Park, young Kyle Broflovski goes all fanboy on Robert Smith Of The Cure after our hero, having transformed himself into Mothra Robert Smith, vanquished a marauding Mecha Barbra Streisand, saving Kyle's hometown from certain annihilation.

"Goodbye, Robert Smith," Kyle yells as the town's savior walks off into the sunset in that South Park way of gliding around. And then, Kyle just couldn't help himself. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for a little boy: "Disintegration is the best album ever!" the boy exclaims. "Robert Smith kicks ass!"

Sure, Kyle may have been fawning in the presence of his hero. But we can forgive the young South Park boy such exaggeration. I mean, Kyle was just a kid at the time, circumstance dropping him all of a sudden at the feet of this deity. Who can blame Kyle for such enthusiasm in that moment?

The truth is, now that we're several years removed from that superheroic feat and now have a calmer perspective, Disintegration is not the best album ever. Now that I think about it, I can name at least a couple or three albums off the top of my head that might be better. But Kyle wasn't that far off. Disintegration certainly is in the conversation.

Well, OK, I hear you. Maybe it isn't quite in THAT conversation. Now that I think about it, the top of my head is getting up into the double figures on the number of albums that might be better. But now we're starting to focus in a little clearer. Tell you what, let me go check the Rolling Stone list of the top 500 albums of all time, see where those people place it. Hold on, OK, here it is: No. 116 on the latest chart, compiled last year. But that's 116 with a bullet, having jumped all the way up from 326 in the 2012 list. Yeah, sure, I can accept that. Like everyone else, I have issues with some of the particulars of that newest RS list. But I have no qualms with this specific one. No. 116 for Disintegration feels to me pretty close to the mark.

I got onto Disintegration not long after it was released in May 1989. I had been mildly intrigued by some of The Cure's videos in MTV rotation over the years, leading me to pick up the 1986 greatest-hits compilation, Staring at the Sea, which I enjoyed quite a bit. But I didn't follow up until sometime in the summer or fall of 1989, when on a lark I picked up Disintegration on CD to find out what this band could do over the course of an album.

From the first listen, I felt the pull of this riptide. I wasn't immediately blown away, but I knew from the beginning that this one was destined to grow on me like ivy. All I had to do was keep listening and paying attention. It happened. I had probably listened to Disintegration a dozen times or so when all of a sudden I looked up and realized that this motherfucker had a death grip on me with no idea to let go anytime soon.

This record is all about atmosphere and mood. There are still some pretty good pop songs in here when you find them among the wash of new band member Lawrence O'Donnell's keyboards and Smith's subtle guitar melodies. Smith's desperately achy vocal style has never been better or more appropriate to the material. What I find most impressive about Disintegration is that it is such a cohesive work for the entirety of its 71 minutes. It all flows together so beautifully like it is indeed a singular piece. The wind-chime effect at the beginning of the first track, "Plainsong," sets the mood immediately, and it doesn't let you go until O'Donnell's harmonium fades you out of the closing "Untitled." In between, you ride a persistent wave of regret, lost love, faded memories, emotional breakdowns -- interrupted only by the joyful promise of "Lovesong," the highest-charting single of The Cure's career.

It is painfully obvious that Smith was in a dark place when he wrote these songs. He had been fronting The Cure for about a decade, quickly asserting himself as an early icon in the emerging genre of goth rock. All of a sudden, though, the UK pop charts discovered The Cure. And then MTV caught on, delivering Smith's odd sense of style and bouncy brand of melancholy to a receptive US audience. Next thing he knew, Smith caught himself adjusting his songwriting to accommodate the demands of international pop stardom while his bandmates were losing their focus to the lifestyle. The Cure had stopped existing as an artistic outlet for Smith and had turned into a crowd-pleasing, substance-abusing enterprise.

Smith freaked out in the spring of 1988, coming off The Cure's long tour for their seventh album, the hits-packed Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Here he was turning 29 years old and making wedding plans with Mary Poole, his girlfriend of the past 14 years. His career was careening out of control, and he still had not yet written that masterpiece he knew was in him. So Smith decided it was time for a reboot. He grabbed his supply of LSD and holed up out in the country with Mary to battle his depression and try to extract some dark, moody, introspective songs out of his soul like his life depended on it.

2019: Mary and Robert at The Cure's Hall of Fame induction

And voila! What emerged weeks later were a beautiful love song Smith wrote as a wedding gift to his wife among a couple dozen odes to nihilism and depression -- and a rejuvenated goth-pop star on a mission to record his new album, Disintegration, with or without The Cure. Smith called a meeting of all who thought of themselves as part of the band at the time, demoed his new songs and asked everyone point-blank: Are you in or are you out? Most of them called themselves in, and they went to work recording the eighth album by The Cure.

The suits at Elektra Records weren't so sure of it when they heard the finished product. But they reluctantly released it anyway and watched in awe as the dark, depressing, achingly beautiful Disintegration became The Cure's best-selling album on both sides of the ocean. And 30-year-old Robert Smith had a masterpiece that he could call his very own.

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