It’s hard to think of a more sophisticated songwriter than Robert Smith in 1990. He’d only just released the seismic Disintegration album in an effort to present his sense of solipsism of the world at large, embracing his truth with a shimmering reflection of a rockstar getting older before his very eyes. But he was still young, and had to hit the stride of his 30s, which is evident from his guest appearance at MTV’s ‘120 Minutes’.
In his own quirky way, Smith made peace with the record, feeling that Disintegretaion tapped into a cultural moment, and gave the band a certain prerogative that showcased their sense of truth. “It’s probably one of two or three albums that meant something in the broader cultural sense than just, like, ‘another Cure album,'” Smith conceded. “It happened at a particular time, and I suppose it had the right combination of songs and it meant a lot to a lot of people. I actually wanted to do the 40th anniversary of Three Imaginary Boys instead, but I was overruled, so we did Disintegration, which is probably the wise thing to do.”
We find Smith in 1990 in a different period in his life, feeling that his purpose was set and that The Cure was journeying down a more subversive route, having pieced together a compilation of remixes that stood up with the best of the band’s original output. And that’s why the singer is strangely quirky mood when he appears on MTV, introducing the musical and esoteric segments that will occur on the show. The songwriting guitarist says that his approach to performance is “almost like a lifestyle”, and he presents himself in a variety of natty costumes. The pyjamas that decorate his body are much the same as the clothes that he wore in the video for ‘Lullaby’.
The band were becoming more confident in their dealings with other aspects of their musical trajectory, exploring the intensity of the work through a series of blinding guitar licks. The guitarist presents himself in a fittingly idiosyncratic guise, going through the motions that had made up his personal and intellectual property.
True, the clips are punctuated by a series of commercials, but the film now stands as a window into time, with its punchy jangles and cool detached editing style that reminded listeners of the past accomplishments and endeavours, in an editing style that recalled the frenetic editing style the 1990s thought was in vogue, before Quentin Tarantino returned the films to more sedate, sincere forms of editing styles.
For readers who were too young to experience the 1990s, the clips show a songwriter embracing the decade for all its possibilities, penances, penalties and potential, issuing a perspective of the era that is equal parts construction as it is cohesion. The footage includes some of the band’s propulsive bass lines amped up loud, focus being put on the groove as much as it is on the melody in question.
He does concede that some of the earliest videos were a bit “scary”, but says the pop tunes were a part of their trajectory and development as people. “Everyone’s pretty miserable in their 20s,” he sighs in a way only someone as downbeat as Smith can deliver. He muses that his diet made his eyes change shape because the eyes he has in 1990 look very different to ones he had in the early part of his career.
Smith isn’t the only one interviewed during the videos, as the MTV clips also place focus on some of the music video people who turn The Cure’s songcraft into a more visual form of storytelling. But while the tunes carry on endearingly, the clips never fail to recognise the essence and authority of the man in question; Robert Smith.
The songwriter was changing as an artist, delving deeper into the riches of time to create something more long-lasting and valuable as a creative thinker. His closest peer was Paul McCartney, who was abandoning the trappings of The Beatles and Wings to curate a more experimental form of pop and opera. The Beatle was shifting from rock into more interesting diversions, leading Smith into more sophisticated alleys of European flavoured pop.
If Smith felt old in 1990, he must feel ancient in 2022, but he never lost touch of the detachment, despair and general unease of his work, no matter what shape it was presented to him. And these clips present a whimsical journey into the realms of time to showcase the guitar player at his most garrulous, generous and good-natured. Despair didn’t need to be unfriendly in order to be impactful, but to be impactful, despair needed to have some sort of pathos going for it.
Stream The Cure’s Robert Smith hosting ‘120 Minutes’ on MTV below.