In 2019, Robert Smith began to speak publicly about The Cure's first new album in 11 years, Live From the Moon. As the famous frontman made this announcement, he revealed he had recently lost his brother and both his parents. The subject matter will be heavy, as the album deals with grief and loss. When asked how it would compare to past albums, Smith's answer said it all: It would be much like Disintegration, perhaps the band's darkest album to date.
Released at the tail end of a chaotic, lucrative, and challenging decade for the beloved New Wave band, Disintegration marked a shift in maturity and artistic vision for Smith and the rest of his ever-changing roster of collaborators. From a critical perspective, it's widely regarded as one of the band's best. For the modest and gloomy Smith, it was worthy of a 30th anniversary tour, despite the singer's prior insistence that there would be no more Cure activity.
While everyone has their own personal relationship with Disintegration, the rich backstory behind its inspirations - and Smith's neuroses while creating it - color the work in a fascinating new light.
While there were many personal reasons why the band wanted to create a less pop-oriented album than Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me or The Head on the Door, it was inspired in part by real-life events.
Before recording began for Disintegration, two young men took their own lives while listening to The Cure, which garnered widespread press coverage about ‘Gothic Cult Suicide.’ Robert Smith “had [the article] stuck on the wall,” as it was true that his band was goth and had a cult-like following. Still, he knew the music wasn't truly at fault.
That, coupled with an incident at a San Francisco concert in 1986 where a fan stabbed himself in the chest onstage, left the band in an understandably dark frame of mind.
The band as a whole spent much of the 1980s indulging in drinking and heavy drug use. It was a coping mechanism for the unexpected skyrocket to fame, mixed with a tremendous workload in the case of Smith, who was also playing for Siouxsie and the Banshees.
By 1989, everyone was tired of the rollercoaster and ready to focus on the task at hand. Smith took it one step further and used the album as a way to think about his experiences with substance abuse in retrospect. "Lullaby" was an especially notable example, a romantic and unnervingly sensual song about hallucinations, paralyzing fear, and being eaten by a spider.
While looking back on the horrors and intrigue of his past hallucinogen use, Smith also reflects upon mental health, both his own and as a general concept. Loss of control and mental fragility have always been common themes in his music, but they're taken to an extreme on Disintegration.
Smith’s personal friend and video director Tim Pope voiced strong admiration for his colleague:
There's like this private joke between me an' [Smith]. It's like I'm always torturin' 'im an' 'e 'ates me! But The Cure is the ultimate band for a filmmaker to work with because old [Smith] really understands the camera. His songs are so cinematic. I mean on one level there's this stupidity and humour, right, but beneath that there are all [Smith’s] psychological obsessions and claustrophobia.
Eternally motivated by ennui and mild dissatisfaction, it’s only natural that Smith did not take well to turning 30. After the dizzying highs and crushing lows of spending his 20s in the spotlight, the spectrum of human emotions became frustratingly less accessible to him.
Smith elaborates in an interview published soon after Disintegration was released:
I just can’t feel anything as keenly as I used to - pleasure or pain [...] Your emotional, physical and mental tolerance levels keep going up so it’s almost impossible to be surprised or delighted or shocked in a childlike way anymore [... ] When you do recapture that feeling, it makes it even more painful, because you realize that it’s still there and unattainable. When I was singing a song off the new album, The Same Deep Water As You, in the studio I was completely overcome for about 15 minutes. I was amazed I could still feel like this about something, which made it more disappointing when I woke up the next day and I didn’t feel anything at all.
As depressing as it is to listen to Disintegration, the process of making it wasn't such a downer. Cure keyboardist Roger O'Donnell savors the memory of the recording process:
I remember very clearly laughing and joking and fooling around in the control room while Robert was singing "Disintegration" and then all of us trying to be serious when he came in to listen back. I don’t know how he put up with it really. It was never a serious atmosphere in the studio and when you think about the album and how dark it is, I’m sure people think we were sitting around slitting our wrists with candles and chains hanging from the walls.