May 04, 2022
By Austin Saalman
By 1982, highly influential English rockers The Cure’s collective wellbeing had entered into a state of disrepair, with each member seemingly engulfed in his own personal Hell. From drug abuse and mental illness to financial struggles and group in-fighting, hard times had befallen the band, leading it to explore far darker themes on its fourth album. What emerged on the group’s landmark Pornography is a haunting portrait of emotional strife, rich in the group’s now signature brand of doom and gloom, evident from the opening utterance of “It doesn’t matter if we all die” to the ominous drone of disembodied voices punctuating the album’s final seconds. Pornography’s unique approach to gothic rock, New Wave, and neo-psychedelia remains on perpetual display throughout its 43-minute runtime. Its music, though not extravagant in terms of sonic acrobatics, is remarkably tight, creating a cohesive flow, and reiterating common lyrical themes of fear, desperation, and sorrow. Pornography is a multilayered puzzle box of madness and loathing which, combined with its gritty soundscapes, renders it a morbidly affecting listening experience.
The thumping percussion and wailing guitars of opening track “One Hundred Years” serve to introduce the listener to the group’s dystopian vision of rust and struggle. Such lyrics as, “Stroking your hair as the patriots are shot/Fighting for freedom on the television” and “Sharing the world with slaughtered pigs” suggest a political sentiment, and yet frontman Robert Smith’s pleading of “Please love me/Meet my mother…/But the fear takes hold” indicates a far more personal undercurrent. Domestic depictions such as, “A little black haired girl/Waiting for Saturday” and “The death of her father pushing her/Pushing her white face into the mirror” are juxtaposed with talk of soldiers, regimes, and “ambition in the back of a black car,” suggesting that while a battle most certainly rages outside, something far more sinister is occurring within.
Subsequently, “A Short Term Effect” sees the group exploring its New Wave roots, while still maintaining a sense of ominousness, aligning well with the rest of the album. With its babbling guitar and psychosexual lyrical sentiments, standout track “The Hanging Garden,” whether intentional or not, bears a strong resemblance to the music of The Velvet Underground, namely 1967’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” Here, Smith sings of “creatures kissing in the rain” against the backbeat of Lol Tolhurst’s tribal percussion, the track crafting an eerie portrait of unholy intimacy in a ritualistic setting. “Siamese Twins,” one of the most important songs of The Cure’s early career, opens with the ethereal tintinnabulation of orchestral chimes, Smith’s often ambiguous verse offering a stirring tale of murder and intrigue, though the theme may very well be suicide. Alive with sensuality and paranoia, the narrator begins on the outside: “Girl at the window looks at me for an hour/Then everything falls apart” until “The walls and ceiling move in time/Push a blade into my hands/Slowly up the stairs/And into the room.” The ordeal ends with Smith inquiring, “Is it always like this?” Beneath his despondency, much emotion roils, as blood is drawn and fate is sealed.
Both sonically and lyrically, “The Figurehead” is Pornography’s key track, the descent having been made, madness prevailing both internally and externally as the protagonist crumbles beneath the weight of being. One cannot help but see the track’s possible influence on various ’90s and ’00s musical releases, particularly those such as OK Computer. When Smith sings “A hundred other words blind me with your purity/Like an old painted doll in the throes of a dance,” the imagery put forth by a slew of alt rock progenies is easily recalled. As menacing as this track may be, there is an almost tongue in cheek sensibility to Smith’s assertions, especially that of, “I can lose myself in Chinese art and American girls/All the time.”
The disoriented and oddly mesmerizing “A Strange Day” is another highlight, perhaps Pornography’s finest articulation of alienation, offering a certain vibrant beauty within an otherwise shadowy palette. The vast reaches of “Cold” part with the claustrophobic hums of a ghostlike cello, accessing an entire plane of cosmic desolation, Smith singing of ice in his heart, as well as screaming at the moon. Another of the album’s key lines emerges: “I was cold as I mouthed the words/And crawled across the mirror.”
The album’s closing title track is among The Cure’s best. “Pornography” is perhaps the album’s bleakest, most chilling cut, despite Smith’s later insistence that it is slightly more optimistic than other songs. Fragmented descriptions “A hand in my mouth/A life spills into the flowers” and “An image of the queen/Echoes round the sweating bed/Sour yellow sounds inside my head” possess a visceral value unmatched by many lyrics of the genre. “One more day like today and I’ll kill you/A desire for flesh/And real blood,” Smith assures, “And I’ll watch you drown in the shower/Push my life through your open eyes.” With this, the album reaches its intended culmination: the evolution of a damaged psyche from deepest depression to deluded paranoia and numb indifference, now spilling over into mania, entirely disconnected, intent upon committing the final act of physical destruction, and perhaps attaining transcendence in the process: “I must fight this sickness/Find a cure.”
The Cure has gone on to achieve iconic status, having pioneered gothic rock alongside peers Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Joy Division, despite its subsequent ventures into far lighter pop territories on 1985’s Head on the Door and 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. The group inevitably descended back into the shadowlands on 1989’s murky magnum opus Disintegration—another timeless release, declared “the best album ever” by South Park’s Kyle Broflovski—which serves as something of a spiritual sibling to Pornography.
Pornography is a significant achievement, having quietly helped to define some of its era’s most prominent musical subgenres, while also bringing the group a great deal more attention, despite the negativity of initial critical reception. It is a genuine work of art, not only representative of the decade in which it was released, but also the evolution of alternative rock as a whole.