The Cure's Disintegration was an artistic coup and a popular smash. The 1989 album earned group leader Robert Smith a mainstream American fan base even as it actively delighted his die-hard fans who pined for the heavy gloom of Faith or Pornography instead of such brilliantly effervescent singles as "The Lovecats" and "Just Like Heaven."
Of course, the fact that The Cure can put out albums that please the downbeat faithful while catching the ears of soccer moms with songs like "Friday I'm In Love" is a testament to Robert Smith's talents as both a songwriter and a curator of sound. It means something to have a steady stream of songs populating radio dials while building an adoring (make that morosely adoring) audience that considers itself outside the mainstream. To compare, go directly to the Cocteau Twins, a wonderful band that created not only its own world of sound but also its own language. My '80s teenhood was spent listening to both bands, but I can only bring up a few Cocteau Twins tidbits while I can still sing dozens of Cure tunes.
Robert Smith (nicknamed Fat Bob in the U.K., for his well-hidden heft) has used his band as a vehicle to explore the two things all the great bands have: a sound and songs. You can have one or the other, but if you are talented and savvy enough to have both you will join The Immortals. Smith had the songwriting chops from the beginning, best heard on The Cure's reworked American debut, Boys Don't Cry. From this New Wave beginning, The Cure quickly branched off into spacier post-punk (twin masterpieces Faith and Pornography) before getting very psychedelic with The Top and the "I can do anything I damn well please" opus Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
In 1989, Disintegration was seen as a return to slow-churning, depressive form from an artist who obviously loved LSD-laced psych-pop like "Strawberry Fields" as much as he did New Order. A quick listen to the "Blue Monday" drums in "The Walk" or the general "Age of Consent" vibe of "In Between Days" and there is little doubt as to how much The Cure listened to New Order (just as their album Seventeen Seconds seems like a reaction to Joy Division).
But Robert Smith has always had the smarts to keep his ears open, starting even before he joined the birth-of-post-punk/goth band Siouxsie & the Banshees (who either shared his ardor for paisley-patterned psychedelic-era rock or stoked his own fires). The Banshees also actively adored Roxy Music -- who basically invented a mix of retro-futurist post-punk years before punk even existed; check out 1972's For Your Pleasure. Along with Roxy pal David Bowie, this marks the great rupture in American and British rock: the open-hearted sincerity of Nirvana and Pearl Jam on one hand and the cheeky irony of Blur and Pulp on the other.
Julian Cope's Teardrop Explodes was another band with an expansive acid-pop pedigree. Cope was a Scott Walker fanatic, a fact he shared with his old Echo & the Bunnymen bandmates. That group's majestic Ocean Rain masterfully put a post-punk spin onto 1960s orchestral pop. The effect of this album can be heard in things like U2's oddly unheralded Unforgettable Fire, while The Durutti Column and David Sylvian would go for depressive orchestral lushness completely devoid of a rock 'n' roll vocabulary.
As with Morrissey, people tend to dwell on Robert Smith's melancholy or downright morose side while overlooking the good humor and sentimentality in his work. Compare him to The The's ever-self-lacerating Matt Johnson, and you can see Smith's lighter side pour through. Likewise, OMD proved that gray skies and deft popcraft can shift millions of units with their European best-seller Architecture & Morality (the fact that this didn't earn a stateside release while The Cure's Seventeen Seconds and Faith did probably earned some idealistic record exec a pink slip).
And for all of Disintegration's surreal dream-like imagery (go directly to "Lullaby"), Robert Smith still pushes aside the nightmare scenarios in order to dust off the odd English kitchen-sink narrative. Fat Bob adored Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, and you can hear Terry Hall trying to fit The Colourfield's depressive folk-pop template into a leaden Cure style doomscape while remaining his own man.
The Cure would go on to earn more hits -- and to please their faithful -- but they didn't quite fit into the black-and-white '90s. Disintegration finds the group painting with every single color found in nature, and many that exist only in Robert Smith's vivid musical imagination. Funny how every color mixed together can turn into gray.