Psych album of the week: The Cure’s Pornography (1982)

Their 1989 masterpiece may have been called Disintegration, but Pornography is literally the sound of the band falling apart

Pornography-Cure

Pornography saw Cure frontman and guitarist Robert Smith and his not-so-merry collaborators, drummer Lol Tolhurst and bassist Simon Gallup, wilfully plunge headfirst into the void they had opened.

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The English band Spacemen 3 once released an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. That’s an amusing title and probably pretty accurate as far as Spacemen 3 was concerned. Of course, you don’t have to take any drugs to enjoy music; music is arguably its own kind of mind-altering substance. For those so inclined, however, we offer the following as a must-hear. It’s Pornography for your ears! As opposed to the other kind.

Released in 1982, Pornography was the final record of what many fans refer to as the Cure’s “dark trilogy”. Their 1989 masterpiece may have been called Disintegration, but Pornography is literally the sound of the band falling apart. For the first time. 

It has been described as “Phil Spector in hell”, “a masterpiece of claustrophobic self-loathing”, “uncompromising and challenging”, and “an icy, tuneless roar”. The lineup that made it also fractured spectacularly during the subsequent tour. When the Cure was to re-emerge, it was in an altogether different guise as MTV-friendly pop weirdos. 

Before they could get there, though, the Cure still had some work to do in cementing their legendary status as the bleakest of the bleak.  

Seventeen Seconds (1980) was moody and monochromatic, but leavened by the relatively poppy “A Forest” and “Play for Today”. Faith (1981) doubled down on midtempo mood and poised the band on the brink of an abyss. 

Headfirst into the void

Pornography saw frontman and guitarist Robert Smith and his not-so-merry collaborators, drummer Lol Tolhurst and bassist Simon Gallup, willfully plunge headfirst into the void they had opened. This resulted in a druggy mélange of frustration, anger, violence, guilt, and, ultimately, hope.

Sonically, the album is loud and abrasive with pounding drums, Smith’s most demented and fractured guitar work yet, icy synths, and completely unhinged lyrics and vocal takes. Smith wrote the lyrics while taking a break from the December ’81 demo sessions to visit with his drug buddy and contemporary Steven Severin. Smith “spent a few days just wandering around London and hallucinating”. This resulted in some of the Cure’s finest psychedelic and marvellously obtuse lyrics. 

Merciless first track “One Hundred Years” features the fabulously fatalistic opening line “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” There is a lot to unpack in that statement. But what better way to set the tone for the most humourless and angst-ridden effort the Cure has ever produced?

Angst and the Cure go hand in hand as everyone knows, but the band found a way plumb new depths on Pornography, with the music press declaring, “[Joy Division’s] Ian Curtis, by comparison, was a bundle of laughs.”  

The second song, “A Short Term Effect” gets explicitly hallucinatory, describing “colours that flicker in water”, being “draped in black, static white sound”, “teeth of madness”, “charcoal face[s]”, and “the atmosphere that rots with time” over nausea-inducing guitar atonalities and driving rhythm-section tumbles. 

Third track and night-tripping single “The Hanging Garden” features flanged guitar leads and the most tribal of drum sounds on an album featuring the Cure’s percussion work at its most clattering and brutal. 

Self-flagellation mode

Speaking of brutal, the sparse and lugubrious “Siamese Twins” comes next. The song shows Smith in self-flagellation mode over infidelity: “her legs around me… in the morning I cried,” then “I don’t need you anymore, you’re nothing,” and finally “Is it always like this?” Oh dear.

The nightmarish “The Figurehead” is next, and it doesn’t get any easier, folks. We have “dust on the lips of a vision of hell”, losing oneself in “Chinese art and American girls”, “crimson pain”, exploding hearts, “writhing with hatred”, “stained faces”, and Smith’s finest Lady Macbeth moment, “I will never be clean again.” 

The gorgeously apocalyptic “A Strange Day” comes next. It features a classic modulated and droning Smith guitar figure over a (relatively, for Pornography) smooth groove. Smith finds himself with his head turning “to dust”, “laughing” as he “drifts through the wind”. Ultimately, “the sky and the impossible explode,” after which “everything is gone forever.” 

Horror string-synths and ice-pick drums stab and thrust as “Cold” offers a harrowing description of the effects of hard drugs. “Crawled across the mirror”, “Your name like ice into my heart”, and “Screaming at the moon” set up the hopeless denouement where “Everything [is] as cold as silence” and “You will never say a word.” 

Retrospective reverence

Album closer “Pornography” slowly fades in over a babbling backing track, and provides synthy minor-sixth unease, distorted and slashing bass guitar, dark-carnival slippery slide-guitar fumblings, and heavily treated jackhammer drums. Key lines here include: “In an electric glare an old man cracks with age,” “Sour yellow sounds inside my head,” “One more day like today and I’ll kill you,” and “I’ll watch you drown in the shower, pushing my life through your open eyes.” The song and the album end with Smith screaming “I must fight this sickness.” The babbling voices fade away, leaving the listener “scarred” and “curled like an embryo”, to quote “Cold” once again. 

At the time, the album was not generally well-received, but it has fared far better retrospectively. Later dark-and-heavy bands, including Deftones and System of a Down, revere Pornography. It ranked at No. 6 on NME’s 2011 list of the “50 Darkest Albums Ever”. Meanwhile, Mojo ranked it on their list of “100 Records That Changed the World”. 

Sonic psych-out

The final line of this darkest of albums, from the closer and title track, is “I must fight this sickness, find a cure, I must fight this sickness.” This is not a cheap self-referential moment but a sign that even in his darkest hours Robert Smith is unable to completely abandon his faith in humanity and himself. 

In their own words

“There was a lot of drugs involved.” (Robert Smith)

“At the time, I lost every friend I had, everyone, without exception, because I was incredibly obnoxious, appalling, self-centered.” (Robert Smith)

“It was one of the recording sessions I’ve enjoyed most. We understood each other, we all had the same background. There was only one time when I didn’t understand a single thing and that was when Robert had taken something and we did nothing at all for two days.” (Producer Phil Thornalley)

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