The original post-punk trio of The Cure were experiencing growing pains as they struggled to find their identity. Transitioning out of the 1970s and into the ’80s, synthesisers and drum machines became increasingly important to the band’s sound, as did Robert Smith‘s more dour lyrical observations. Their second album, Seventeen Seconds, took on haunting soundscapes that divulged from the guitar rock of Three Imaginary Boys, and the band were falling down the rabbit hole of guitar effects, keyboard swirls, and doom-laden imagery.
It all reached breaking points as the band regrouped to record their fourth album, Pornography. Although it stylistically carried on the moody atmosphere established on Seventeen Seconds and Faith, an increasingly fatalistic mindset took over as well. From the very first lines of ‘One Hundred Years’ (“It doesn’t matter if we all die”), Pornography sounded like a direct transmission from Hell. Smith acknowledged that even some temporary psychosis might have taken over at this point.
“Seventeen Seconds was the most personal record that we’ve ever done, strangely enough,” Smith explained to SPIN back in 1987, “Lyrically, content-wise. Pornography is just a very odd record that was made by a very odd group. I don’t think I would recognize myself around that time.”
Smith continued: “I was undergoing a lot of mental stress. But it had nothing to do with the group, it just had to do with what I was like, my age and things. I think I got to my worst round about Pornography. Looking back and getting other people’s opinions of what went on, I was a pretty monstrous sort of person at that time.”
Band relations were at an all-time low, drug and alcohol use was rampant, and Smith’s state of mind was deteriorating quickly. The music reflected this, with repeated jagged guitar phrases and demonic imagery providing not a single second of levity. There was nowhere to go after Pornography, and Smith knew it.
“I had two choices at the time, which were either completely giving in [committing suicide] or making a record of it and getting it out of me,” Smith explained in the book Never Enough: The Story of The Cure. “I really thought that was it for the group. I had every intention of signing off. I wanted to make the ultimate ‘fuck off’ record, and then sign off [the band].”
In a way, that is what happened: bassist Simon Gallup left immediately following the album’s release, and Smith decided to take a break to focus on his health. When he recovered, Smith decided that a complete stylistic makeover was required in order for The Cure to survive. Singles like ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ and ‘The Lovecats’ took on a far more playful tone, and Smith began to embrace pop music as The Cure’s future. The downtrodden nature of Pornography wouldn’t resurface until years later, a time when Smith combined the best parts of the band’s lighter and darker sides to create Disintegration.