Fuelled by festering self-hate and copious doses of LSD, ‘Pornography’ is The Cure’s depressingly oppressive masterpiece. It’s an interesting album in terms of the reception it has received: when first released in 1982, it didn’t receive many favourable reviews. It was one of those albums that seemed to be ahead of its time. Nowadays, it’s loudly lauded by all and is rightly regarded as The Cure’s magnus opus.
Listening to ‘Pornography’ can at times feel like being in a nightmare. It’s a distillation of the dark side of human emotion – pain, regret, shame, hatred, anger, apathy, angst – all underlined with a wilful streak of nihilism conveyed through a host of surreal and disquieting images. The arrangements are sparse and bleak, lending a claustrophobic atmosphere to vocalist Robert Smith’s misgivings.
Doesn’t sound too appealing does it?! And you’d be write in expecting an uncomfortable listen but certainly not an unpleasant one. It’s actually quite cleansing to listen to – an outlet to release pent-up bad vibes. In truth, it’s also an achingly beautiful, powerfully authentic, emotive work of art that is an essential listen for anyone with a passing interest in indie or alternative rock… or even just music in general… it’s that good!
‘One Hundred Years’ is the perfect launchpad for ‘Pornography’ – a raw, uncompromising beginning to The Cure’s most visceral statement. Smith’s guitar emphatically bleeds, twisting and spiralling like a rusty corkscrew, lending a cathartic vent to his anguished cries. Then there’s that infamous opening line, ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die,’ establishing the song’s hopeless tone. All the while, a brisk, restless drum break rattles in the background. Smith is at his most nihilistic here, regaling us with a range of desolate vignettes, ‘The ribbon tightens round my throat / I open my mouth / And my head bursts open.’ It’s dark, but deliciously so.
Another dose of dreary drums heralds ‘A Short Term Effect.’ Distorted guitars wail out suddenly while Smith’s voice lags noticeably at intervals giving the track a paranoid edge. The lyrics are equally nightmarish, ‘Movement / No movement / Just a falling bird / Cold as it hits the bleeding ground.’ The song title could be a reference to drugs or medication or even life itself – we’re all destined for the same fate as that unlucky bird; life is just an aimless distraction.
‘The Hanging Garden’ turns the tempo up a notch with a rapid-fire bass and hectic drums imbuing Smith’s musings with a tense urgency. There’s a flanger effect too that creates a dizzy, swirling feel. The chorus here is catchy (‘fall, fall, fall, fall!’) which was probably the reason why it was the only single released off the album. Not that there’s any reason you would want it to be memorable as it involves some sort of animal suffering! ‘Cover my face as the animals die.’
Next up comes my favourite Cure song, hands down: ‘Siamese Twins.’ For me, that guitar riff comes closer than anything to encapsulating cold, nauseating depression. The stuttering percussion and sombre bass only serve to heighten the melancholia. And that’s all before the vocals! There’s some killer lines that are guaranteed to haunt you, ‘Then everything falls apart / Broken inside me / It falls apart.’ The lyrics are strongly suggestive of a failing relationship:
‘Leave me to die
You won’t remember my voice
I walked away and grew old
You never talk
We never smile
I don’t need you any more
The way his voice lilts slightly during those last four lines floors me every time! The recurring line, ‘Is it always like this?’ smacks of someone who is absolutely burnt out from life. I’m always amazed watching the live version to see how cool Smith remains while his voice bristles with pain.
If ‘Siamese Twins’ opens a wound, ‘The Figurehead’ rubs the salt in,
‘Sharp and open
Leave me alone
I’m sleeping less every night.’
As the drums slash, the bass burrows and the guitars meander, Smith touches on a lot of the album’s key themes: angst (‘As the days become heavier and weighted’), desperation (‘I will lose myself tomorrow / Crimson pain’) and guilt (‘I will never be clean again’). A full serving of brooding melancholia.
‘A Strange Day’ is definitely a contender for the most powerful song on the album. It starts with a beautiful, eerie drone before that memorable, hypnotic, ominous sounding synth kicks in, giving the song a very taut feel. The lyrics seem to hint at a possible suicide, or at least a sense of being overwhelmed by life,
‘And the sand
And the sea grows
I close my eyes
Move slowly through drowning waves
Going away on a strange day.’
Smith’s song writing is first class here. He manages to craft some really exquisite, beguiling imagery, ‘And I laugh as I drift in the wind / Blind / Dancing on a beach of stone.’
‘Held for one moment I remember a song
An impression of sound
Then everything is gone
While Smith croons the last section, there’s a tense, building guitar riff before the drums are momentarily cut (perhaps to mirror the speaker’s demise) to allow a stunning, gnarly guitar solo to blare. They stomp back in again to propel the song out to its finish. A truly epic moment.
‘Cold’ has that trademark Cure gothic mood courtesy of those ethereal, rising strings. A lot of the songs on ‘Pornography’ has quite startling openings and ‘Cold’ is no different,
Your back was turned
Curled like an embryo.’
And, as the above lyrics indicate, like most of the other tracks, this one is also dripping with a sense of pain and vulnerability. The refrain ‘Your name / Like ice into my heart’ is equally stirring. The emphasis of coldness equates to an emotional numbness – Smith’s apathetic reaction to life’s ultimate futility.
The album’s closer is abstract and unsettling – this is one record that won’t let you out easily! Weird reversed radio samples greet you at the beginning before a foreboding four note string stretch out into the chilly emptiness. The drums sound muffled and distant while the guitars are shrill and incoherent, creating a very ‘broken’ and disconcerting mood. Smith’s lyrics are acutely morbid, this time his animosity is directed outward rather than inward,
‘One more day like today and I’ll kill you
A desire for flesh
And real blood
I’ll watch you drown in the shower
Pushing my life through your open eyes.’
The final track does seem to be ‘Pornography’s’ darkest lament, one a casual listener might dismiss on first listening but it will reward a bit of patience and closer examination.
Not many albums can make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as consistently as ‘Pornography.’ It’s an album you know you’ll never ever get sick of – a true desert island disc. Music to stroll through a wood on a winter’s day to. In short, a dark, dramatic, tense tour de force.