When crafting the material for Disintegration, Robert Smith had a specific desire: to get back to The Cure‘s darker roots. After years of melancholy post-punk, Smith pulled a 180 and decided that it was time for The Cure to embrace pop music with singles like ‘Let’ Go To Bed’ and ‘The Lovecats’. By 1985’s The Head on the Door, the band had expanded to a quintet, successfully integrated lighter keyboards sounds, and even threatened to break into the mainstream with singles like ‘Close to Me’ and ‘In Between Days’.
But it was the group’s follow up, 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, that truly made them stars. The ultimate purveyors of English goth rock were now top 40 pop hits and performing in stadiums around the world. Despite their success, Smith continued to feel alienated and longed to return to the band’s original sound. On the brink of 30 and unsatisfied with his artistic output, Smith was determined to create a more substantial album by the end of the 1980s.
Dour emotions creep around every corner of Disintegration: the palpable feeling of loss in ‘Pictures of You’, the inescapable dourness of ‘Prayers for Rain’, the detached coldness of ‘Plainsong’. But Smith wanted something more powerful on the album as well. He wanted something that would stick with the listener and even make them uncomfortable. He wanted something scary.
So he recalled some of the bedtime stories that his father would tell him when he was a boy. “He would always make them up,” Smith recalled in Never Enough: The Story of The Cure. “There was always a horrible ending. They would be something like ‘sleep now, pretty baby or you won’t wake up at all.'” Keying into that lingering creepiness, Smith hatched a story about a nightmarish creature called ‘The Spiderman’ who eats children in their beds. It was then that the wonderfully beautiful and eternally unsettling ‘Lullaby’ was born.
In order to bring ‘The Spiderman’ to life, Smith employed a classic horror-film trick: adding a whispered vocal line. Often singers in the pre-digital age sang guide vocals on takes in order to help assist them during the final performances, and to prevent bleed over, these vocals were sometimes whispered so as to be easily obscured if they happened to be caught on the final take. Exploiting this whispering vocal line had been done to bring Jim Morrison’s own eerie tale of trauma to life on The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’, and when Smith was done with his guide vocal, he decided that it would work perfectly in ‘Lullaby’.
The guide vocal was mixed into Smith’s final vocal performance, and when treated with a fair amount of reverb and echo, created an otherworldly tone that sounded incredibly sinister. Smith believed it was only fitting to represent the album by putting out ‘Lullaby’ as a single. Despite the unnerving nature of the song, ‘Lullaby’ became the band’s biggest hit in the UK, landing at number five on the singles chart. It performed less well in the US, and it would take another song from the album, ‘Lovesong’, to land The Cure their only top ten single in America, peaking at number two.
Listen to the whispered guide vocal for ‘Lullaby’ down below.