By 1989, Robert Smith had everything that a musician could want. There was critical success and cult fandom, which The Cure had accrued through a decade of underground concerts, sonic progression, and uncompromising sounds. But then something funny happened by the mid-1980s: The Cure became one of the most consistent pop acts of the new wave era.
Starting with light synthpop fare like ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, The Cure suddenly found themselves flirting not just with the mainstream but with the pop charts as well. ‘The Love Cats’, ‘In Between Days’, ‘The Walk’ and ‘Close to Me’ all served as windows into the more accessible side of the goth-rock masters of doom and gloom, but 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me almost wholly eradicated the fatalistic and dour atmosphere that had taken over the band’s records through 1982’s Pornography.
‘Just Like Heaven’ was a transcontinental smash, pushing The Cure into stadiums while expanding the band’s audience exponentially. With rock, star success came uncertainty from Smith, who believed that the general public, and maybe even the band themselves, were losing touch with the darker side of their sound. With a renewed dependence on psychedelic drugs and a startling realisation that old age wasn’t as far away as he had once thought, Smith decided to create the ultimate Cure record.
The results were Disintegration, a 12-song masterpiece that reclaimed the band’s moody aesthetic in the early 1980s and solidified The Cure’s place as the kings of alternative rock.
Unlike a number of their peers, The Cure were able to ride the line between hit singles and thematic album sequences. Every song on Disintegration is perfectly placed, highlighting and illuminating the other songs around it. The impact of the LP just wouldn’t be the same unless ‘Plainsong’ opened it and ‘Untitled’ closed it. The singles may have largely appeared on the first side, but they feel purposeful and deliberate without seeming out of place among the more sprawling and darker material.
That’s probably because songs like ‘Pictures of You’ and ‘Lullaby’ aren’t really what anyone would consider the template for a traditional chart-topping song. The former is as hypnotic as any album cuts, taking its time and letting the layers of keyboards and guitar lines unfold. Despite having a pronounced pop hook, the latter could be the creepiest moment on all of Disintegration, with Smith’s whispered vocals sending shivers down any listener’s spine.
To celebrate the anniversary of the monumental album’s 1989 release, we’ve ranked all 12 of the album’s songs in order of greatness, from the trippy atmospherics of ‘Plainsong’ to the closing notes of ‘Untitled’. While the album itself doesn’t work without the exact placement and sequencing of all 12 songs, we’ve divorced them from their original contexts to see just how well each tune holds up on its own.
Ranking every song on Disintegration:
To start off this ranking of Disintegration, we’re going to the tail end of the record, where the final untitled track of the LP lives. ‘Untitled’ finds The Cure at a folkier crossroads to end an album as trippy and dour as Disintegration, as if to reiterate that The Cure are able to flip between moods and genres with ease.
Although it’s a relatively mellow ending that incorporates some familiar guitar effects and downer lyrics, ‘Untitled’ just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album. A perfectly serviceable closer that never rises to much else, ‘Untitled’ brings Distingeration to a lovely, if somewhat undercooked, end.
11. ‘Last Dance’
If there was one underrated hero that made The Cure’s sound so unique, it would be bassist Simon Gallup. Having been with the group for nearly their entire history, Gallup became a master of crafting hooks that spread all across the fretboard. Just as well, he could anchor songs like ‘The Love Cats’ and ‘Just Like Heaven’ with a deceptively simple but elegant low end that held all of the different arrangements together in a cohesive fashion.
Gallup’s switch between high plucked notes and low growls is easily the best part of ‘Last Dance’, the album’s fourth track that often gets lost due to being stuck between the album’s hit singles ‘Lovesong’ and ‘Lullaby’. Apart from Smith’s interesting lyrical choices, however, ‘Last Dance’ has a hard time lodging itself in your brain compared to the rest of the album.
Bursting out of the gate with a mix of heavenly synths and spellbinding rhythms, ‘Plainsong’ is the perfect opener for an album as singular as Disintegration. Setting the tone for the next hour, ‘Plainsong’ feels lively and strangely gloomy at the same time, giving an early indication of what listeners are in for.
Despite being one of the most hypnotic songs on an album full of hypnotic material, ‘Plainsong’ is little more than an intro to the album as a whole. It’s a fantastic intro, but when judged on its own merits, it fails to rise to the same heights as some of the more fully fleshed out songs.
Even at their darkest, The Cure could still get people up and dancing. That was part of their appeal: when you listened closely, Smith’s lyrics and themes could often be depressing, but on the surface, The Cure still made intoxicating dancefloor hits.
‘Disintegration’ is so elastic and entrancing that you can almost forgive it for being a meandering eight-minute track. Almost. The truth is that this is usually where fatigue starts to set in as the album approaches the one hour mark, and although the spiral of sounds that make up the song are quite enthralling, ‘Disintegration’ would likely be at least a little bit better if it was subjected to a bit of editing.
8. ‘Fascination Street’
In a parallel universe, ‘Fascination Street’ is the major hit single that launches Disintegration into the mainstream. Brooding and moody yet upbeat and catchy, the song was the first single issued from the album when Elektra Records declined to release the UK single ‘Lullaby.
‘Fascination Street’ includes a bassline that is highly reminiscent of ‘Lullaby’, but all of the creepy whispers and pizzicato string plucks are replaced with psychedelic soundscapes and quasi-industrial keyboard effects. Although only a minor hit in the US, ‘Fascination Street’ is probably the best distillation of Disintegration as a whole into one song.
About as close to Pornography-era doom and gloom as Disintegration gets, ‘Closedown’ is another track that often gets lost in the shuffle due to being stuck between ‘Pictures of You’ and ‘Lovesong’. That’s a shame, considering how ‘Closedown’ is just as captivating as any of the album’s best-known songs, even if it doesn’t have the same hit potential.
With a mix of tribal drums, hooky keyboard lines, and a surprisingly lush arrangement, ‘Closedown’ is a four-minute push and pull between beauty and grime. The only part of the song that is left wanting is Smith, who does very little singing on the track. While that’s an intentional choice that makes ‘Closedown’ wide open and sparse, it also keeps the song from being top-tier material.
6. ‘Prayers for Rain’
The Cure had evolved into their most hard-hitting incarnation by the time Disintegration was being recorded. The minimal participation of keyboardist Lol Tolhurst notwithstanding, guitarist Pearl Thompson, drummer Boris Williams, and new keyboardist Roger O’Donnell were now fully integrated into the lineup, giving the group an expanded set of top quality musicians to bring Smith’s songs to life.
‘Prayers for Rain’ finds all five active band members in perfect sync with each other, ebbing and flowing with the kind of ease that can only be chalked up to expert levels of chemistry. An extra edge of aggression brings ‘Prayers for Rain’ to desolate heights, making it a depressing yet highly affecting track that’s just waiting to get lost in.
5. ‘The Same Deep Waters As You’
Smith purposefully wanted Disintegration to represent a return to the more morose and sombre side of The Cure that had been cast aside during the mid-’80s. Once again dragged into a depressed state of mind, Smith wanted the rest of the world to experience the depths that he was swimming through at the time.
As one of the album’s thematic centrepieces, ‘The Same Deep Water As You’ shows just how low The Cure can go. With a bleak set of lyrics and a seemingly-endless nine-minute runtime, the track just might be the most essential song on Disintegration. Without it, the album is a more even split between dark and light. Thanks to ‘The Same Deep Water As You, Disintegration fully embraces the void and all of its most absorbing qualities.
By the late 1980s, Lol Tolhurst was a member of The Cure in name only. As the band’s original drummer, Tolhurst was the only member of the group to stick with Smith as he made the transition from gloomy goth rock to upbeat synth pop, switching to keyboards when they became a much more prominent element of the band’s sound. But as The Cure added new members and continued to progress, Tolhurst was gradually being left behind as his alcoholism worsened.
Tolhurst likely does not appear at all on Disintegration, but according to his replacement Roger O’Donnell, Tolhurst was behind the initial composition of ‘Homesick’, the ballad that serves as a bittersweet penultimate track. The LP’s most fully-realised deep cut, ‘Homesick’, features a lovely interplay between piano and strings, showing that the softer side of The Cure was still intact. The song would be Tolhurst’s final mark within the band, as he would be thrown out just after the album was fully completed.
Disintegration has plenty of demons in the metaphorical sense. There are spectres and ghosts that float around songs representing everything from deteriorating mental health to the loss of innocence, but usually, these are just metaphors. Usually, that is, except for one moment on the album where a very-real creature called The Spiderman descends from Robert Smith’s mind to haunt and terrorise listeners in real-time.
‘Lullaby’ is the strangest moment on Disintegration: it’s easily the creepiest and most unsettling song, complete with a nightmarish set of lyrics that turns the album into a full-on horror movie. And yet, its mix of hard-hitting drums, propulsive bass, and beautiful string arrangements made it an obvious hit single. ‘Lullaby’ is likely the most unnerving top five hit to ever land on the UK Singles Chart, but its strangely seductive claws continue to wrap themselves around music fans to this day.
The making of Disintegration coincided with a particular lugubrious time in Robert Smith’s life. His mental health was starting to go south, and his feelings toward his own music were at an all-time low. But there were moments of light as well, one of which was Smith’s marriage to his longtime partner, Mary Poole. Smith had made candy-coated love songs before, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for an album like Disintegration. Instead, Smith went for dark beauty in his most sombre and romantic record, ‘Lovesong’.
Forgoing overwrought cliches for simple proclamations, ‘Lovesong’ is as raw and genuine as Smith ever allowed himself to be on record. Souped-up with pop hooks while still retaining the album’s downcast atmosphere, ‘Lovesong’ is easily the most mainstream-friendly moment on Disintegration. What it should truly be commended for, though, is its ability to keep The Cure from drowning in their own darkness.
1. ‘Pictures of You’
Disintegration, at its very core, is an album about the balance between light and darkness. Careening back and forth between the two modes is what not only defines the LP but The Cure as a band. Frequently, it was one or the other: a bright and shiny synth-pop song or a gloomy dive into the abyss. But The Cure were always at their best when they were able to do both at once, as was the case in the album’s finest track, ‘Pictures of You’.
Inspired by a house fire that caused Robert Smith to value his few possessions that weren’t destroyed, ‘Pictures of You’ is the ultimate statement on loss and grief that still sounds like a celebratory stadium anthem. All of the darkness that was essential to The Cure’s sound and image would mean nothing if they didn’t also have the hooks and lightness that elevated them above their peers, and if one song was crucial to defining The Cure as one of music’s most important acts, ‘Pictures of You’ just might the best and brightest in their entire catalogue.