When I first encountered The Cure, I was lost. I was 16 and had recently moved from Florida to Denver with my family. We were poor, which added an extra dimension of alienation as I tried to adjust to a new school. On top of that, I was grappling with the onset of what I wouldn’t realize until decades later was bipolar II disorder. The music of The Cure, equal parts menacing and cleansing, split my life in half. Before it, I was a moody wallflower who had no idea who he was. After it, I began to find myself.
Disintegration, the British band’s eighth album, came out soon after I turned 17—or 30 years ago this week. Nothing could’ve prepared me for it. The group’s record immediately prior, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, was a double-length affair that trafficked in psychedelia and disco. The smorgasbord of an album was The Cure’s equivalent of The Clash’s notoriously indulgent Sandinista!, and I adored it. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me echoed all the wild mood swings (to borrow the name of a Cure album that wouldn’t be released until 1996) of my emerging bipolar disorder. But Disintegration was different. I bought it in May 1989, took it home, and expected the cassette to unspool with splashes of neon color and vivid emotion, as had Kiss Me. Instead, the record wove a single mood—depressive solitude—and majestically adorned itself in it.
Despite their reputation as the figureheads of gloomy goth, The Cure had always been tonally playful. They debuted in 1979 with short, spiky, post-punk songs about boys crying and Albert Camus. They delivered a trio of devastatingly stark albums in the early ’80s—Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography—that trawled the sludge of the frontman Robert Smith’s soul. Then they went psychedelic. Then they went pop. Then they threw everything against the wall with Kiss Me. Then, like the ultimate contraction of our own universe, their Big Bang led to an entropic collapse, which they fittingly titled Disintegration.
“A protracted wallow in the misery of love unrequited or recalled in hopeless desolation” is what Britain’s Q magazine called Disintegration upon its release, adding, “Eleven years and eight studio albums into The Cure’s career and [Smith is] still playing the confused adolescent adrift in suburban heartbreak. Things could hardly be worse.” Many critics and fans were bummed by what they saw as the monochromatic sameness of Disintegration. It was as if John, Paul, George, and Ringo, immediately after the kaleidoscope of Sgt. Pepper’s, decided to release Meet the Beatles. For some, Disintegration felt like a backslide at best, a self-parody at worst; I was one of those people at first. Budding music critic that I was, I felt dumbfounded by The Cure’s regression into molasses-paced glumness. I had just spent an entire year of my life defending The Cure to anyone who would listen, trying to argue that they weren’t the cartoonish goth band everyone at my high school thought they were. And here was Smith, living up to the stereotype.
I came around, as did many other listeners. Disintegration soon became The Cure’s mainstream breakthrough, spawning a hit U.S. single in the form of “Lovesong,” an elegiac hymn to undying romance that captured the heart and imagination of the radio-listening and record-buying public at large. Initially, the song seemed to me to be too simple and direct for The Cure. A love song called “Lovesong”? Up to that point, Smith had shrouded his sentiments in literary references and lush metaphors. Now, it appeared, he was going straight for popularity’s throat.
The more I immersed myself in the album, though, the more I realized that Smith wasn’t just aiming for the mainstream by simplifying his work. He was trying to boil down The Cure’s music into primal archetypes. Done with taking an elliptical approach, Smith opted to evoke the religious awe of romance with “Plainsong,” followed directly by “Pictures of You,” a sprawl of anguished longing that employed the most basic modern symbol of memory, the photograph, as its primary vehicle. “Lullaby” was exactly as advertised, a delicate if perverse catalog of creepy imagery and dreamy weirdness. “Fascination Street” plumbed the guts of obsession and lust.
Disintegration, however, was more than the sum of its songs. The way “Plainsong” pivots into “Pictures of You” with exquisite weightlessness is one of the most graceful moments in the history of music. The throbbing desolation of “Closedown” gave way to the oddly wistful bounce of “Lovesong.” The epic, nine-minute swoon that was “The Same Deep Water as You” reconstituted itself as the epic, eight-minute swoon that was Disintegration’s title track. The Cure had been inaccurately pegged as a band of miserablism, in spite of the many tones and moods they’d mastered during their first decade as a band. Disintegration was a sharp about-face from the group’s under-recognized eclecticism. On the album, each song sounds like a cover of the song before it, slowly building in enormity and despair through this recursion. As a kid who was starting to go through long episodes of lethargy and hopelessness, it was a sound that synced up with my soul.
Bipolar II often appears during one’s teen years, and it almost as often goes undetected at first. Such was the case with me. I had no idea why I would alternate between periods of great overconfidence and elation, otherwise known as hypomania, and episodes of extreme depression. I barely realized on a rational level that those changes were even happening, trapped inside them as I was. But deep down, the music of The Cure resonated with my new internal discord. If Kiss Me had been like a hypomanic episode, full of fireworks and fanfare, Disintegration was like a depressive episode, sluggish and sad in a way that teetered between self-reflection and self-destruction. At the same time, the album allowed me to step outside myself, to examine my feelings from a safe perspective, and to remind myself that something constructive—even beautiful—can come from the lowest emotion.
“Any record that makes you feel anything is a good experience, even if it did take you down to the depths of despair,” Smith said of Disintegration in a 1989 interview for OOR magazine. “At least it encouraged you to feel something, and in a paradoxical way, if it makes you feel depressed, it doesn’t because you’re feeling something.” At the time, the frontman was just turning 30. It’s a time of life when youth seems, for the first time, to be slipping away, and earnest thoughts of aging and mortality start to seep into one’s everyday thinking. “But,” joked Smith in the same interview, turning 30 was “not as bad as being 18.” Being 17 when Disintegration came out, I couldn’t have agreed more. It’s a tough age for most people, whether they have mental-health struggles or not. Thankfully I had Disintegration: a map, a companion, and a reassurance that as long as I was still feeling something, I wasn’t lost.