You stand alone on a vast, empty plain. All around swirl ghostly lights, some in the sky, some right nearby, all have a translucent, transcendent beauty. Great sheaves of light glide in from far off on an unseen horizon and slide slowly, like the first rays of light in a primordial age. It’s a cold place, but also warm: a mournful, gorgeous place outside of time and space, beyond regular description. It’s simultaneously quiet and loud, immense and intimate, light and dark. In short, this could be heaven or this could be hell, but most likely it’s somewhere altogether different. Somewhere that isn’t reality or anywhere close to it, but not exactly fictional either. Chances are that this vast plain, this dark, shimmering world of light and dark, perfect and terrible, is the mind of Robert Smith circa 1989 and you’re listening to Disintegration.
That’s just the first song, ‘Plainsong’, a song of such glacial, grandiose, pristine beauty, full of loss and regret, but darkly beautiful. It shimmers and twinkles like a distant star, one that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never reach. In many ways it captures something of the existential quandary that is the vast emptiness of space: we are tiny specks in an ocean of fantastic, unfathomable nothing. The song conjures for me the image of endless darkness lit only with great distant suns, which send out bands of light that dissipate before they break apart and fade to nothing. Smith’s vocal melds into the ether, becomes swallowed whole by it, being so layered with reverb that he is an almost imperceptible speck in the middle of the great ocean around him. This is truly the most gorgeous beginning to any album, ever.
The album that follows strays between loss, love, terror and despair. The following song, ‘Pictures of You’, takes a similarly grandiose approach, but this time in pursuit of something romantic. The whole album is romantic, in a manner of speaking, but ‘Pictures Of You’ is amongst the most emotionally expressive ruminations on love ever committed to vinyl. In it Smith looks at the burned pictures of a loved one and mourns his loss of that person. Elegant, poetic phrasing is aided by a wonderfully melancholy vocal and a song that layers on beauty in vast slabs on synth and crashes of drum. A genuinely cinematic song, which clocks in at over 7 minutes in length, ‘Pictures of You’ is free from cliché despite wearing its heart on its sleeve and stands as the album’s great statement on personal loss and regret.
Smith’s greatest pop moment on the record is the, at 4 minutes, relatively concise horror-show called ‘Lullaby’. Make no mistake, this is no children’s tale, but rather one of the most seductively sexy records ever. It’s an alluring siren song, one that lures the listener into the dark nightmare, creeping like a spider in through the listener’s ears. It’s production tempers its pop smart sensibilities with a jittery, ghoulish, strangled, understated terror that undercuts the fact that it’s really very catchy. Lulling you is the aim of the song, hence the appropriate title and the mixing of pop melodies with pure, unfiltered nightmare. Robert Smith is being tormented by the ghoulish, nightmarish, Burtonesque gothic figure of the spiderman, who wants to eat him for dinner and we should all be scared too.
The other two tracks I feel should be mentioned include the immense anthem for entropy that is the title track, and the beautifully sweet ‘Lovesong’. ‘Disintegration’ is an 8 minute epic of truly epic proportions. Every part of it is drawn with thick strokes, from the colossal drums, to the waves of synths and Smiths echoing vocal. It stands as emblematic of an album built around space and darkness: there is barely an empty second in the whole 8 minutes, but the illusion of size is incredibly compelling. ‘Lovesong’ is Smith’s love letter to his new wife, one can only assume, to whom he has been wed since 1988. It’s very simple and wouldn’t fit with the rest of the album were it not for the melancholy that almost seems to be woven into Robert Smith’s voice. Not a standout moment, but a delightful little moment of peace and clarity in the vast darkness of the rest of the album.
Disintegration is one of the most colossal statements in rock, and was designed to be exactly that. The Cure had moved from post-punk to goth to power-pop and had finally coalesced everything into one grand, massive, beautiful monument to the colossal entity that was, and is, The Cure. The album is at once empty and desolate, and lively and full. It can be immense or small, quiet and loud, black and white. It is like the cataclysm that will come at the end of all things, the last great creative spurt of a once mighty thing. The Cure have been good since, but they’ve not since been great. This was their last great moment before the entropy set in, before they started fading like the last decaying atoms of a dying universe. This is an album that should be played as the end of the universe rages around us, while everything disintegrates.