The Cure's Pornographic Cure
Published June 2017
Smith’s conceptual experiment in “didactic diction” was a success. By
taking aword laden with overtly “perverse” sexual associations and
audaciously affixing it to an assemblage of tunes that, surface-wise,
anyway, have very little to do with the original concept, he transformed
the word’s meaning, or at least infused it with daringly new
dimensions. Whereas before the word “pornography” had a connotative
atmosphere of (for some) disturbingly graphic eros, now it could take on
an aura of existential terror.
Pornography, the Cure’s 1982 album, positively drips with
dreariness. And yet, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole it as just an
exercise in eerie pathos. Otherworldly, meditatively mercurial,
spiritually harrowing—these ideas encapsulate the complex compelling
nature of the album because it’s so much more than just the ponderously
murky, suicide-inducing effort it’s often made out to be. It clashes
with nuanced contradictions; it’s at once sparse and dense, clamoring
and quiet. It gives rise to the paradoxical idea of poetic cacophony.
Discordance never sounded so sublime.
To be sure, Pornography might have veered recklessly into the
terrain of overwrought kitsch, like much of the gothic output of the
‘80s. Think Sisters of Mercy, whose fog-shrouded songs, while worthy in
their own way, too readily date themselves, and are too eagerly branded
as the genre’s emblematic aesthetic. The Sisters’ signature sound
features vocals that are garishly grave and music that is by turns
cheaply cinematic and self-consciously sepulchral—all ornamented with
lyrics that tediously indulge tropes.
On the other hand, Smith was able to rein in such horrid histrionics
and curtail genre gimmicks and craft a remarkably mature post-punk
classic. Pornography is frequently cited as the paradigmatic
album of ‘80s goth, and indeed, no other album of that genre can hope to
measure up to its gorgeously grandiose gloom. The album itself is
surprisingly compact, with a total of eight songs clocking in at around
30 minutes. Its brevity lends it its gravity. All of the songs are
imperative inclusions in order to sculpt cohesiveness and give the album
a thematic seamlessness. For me, six are absolute stunners, while two
are merely “very good”. So I will touch on those six, keeping in mind,
nonetheless, the necessary nature of the others.
“One Hundred Years” is an opener of invigorating ferocity. Its
militant fervor is matched with lyrics about the nihilistic futility of
combat and of life in general. The opening line, “It doesn’t matter if
we all die” is jarring for its almost beatific negation of existence.
When the song crescendos with “a sound like a tiger thrashing in the water/ over and over/ we die one after the other
over and over/ we die one after the other”, it eviscerates our
suspicions that the album is some lame simulation of teenaged angst.
Instead, we learn, we are in for a layered literary interrogation of
The tribal menace of “Hanging Garden”, an animal-themed song, invokes a primitive sensibility. It was the lead single for Pornography
and gave early Cure fans a taste of the more belligerent side of the
band, which had theretofore exuded a calm solemnity, but never such
bestial brooding. “Hanging Garden” is not the best track on Pornography,
by far, but it’s more accessible than the others, with its potent
psychedelic sonics and lyrics, and therefore the one most likely to lure
in reluctant listeners. For even though Pornography is not for everyone, it most certainly is for those Cure fans who are hesitant to sample the seamier side of the band.
With its death-march beat, “Siamese Twins” lyrically mirrors this
doom-infused rhythm, exploring the topic of loveless sex with a
prostitute, which results in a strangely zombified state. “Is it always
like this?” is the wailed refrain that haunts long after the song has
ceased. It’s the only song that overtly references the album title,
imagistically-speaking. And even then, the song is not necessarily about
sex, but rather about the intangibility of fulfillment and the dread of
“Figurehead” is the centerpiece of Pornography, and the best
“dark” song in The Cure’s catalogue. “Figurehead” is a baroquely morose
opera whose startlingly surrealistic lyrics summon repressed guilt that
gnaws like “spiders inside” and that creepily calls forth “the dust of a
vision of hell”. “Figurehead” sounds like it was recorded in a dungeon
before time began.
“Strange Day” is seductively mystical with its lushly dark tones and
apocalyptic lyrics. Here, Smith revels in the “eye/blind” motif, seeming
to suggest that slipping away into oblivion can be an almost lucidly
“Pornography” (the song) is a perfectly trippy and creepy coda. The
album’s architecture builds from exhilarating bellicosity (“One Hundred
Years”), to bleak tirades (“Short Term Effect” through “Figurehead”) to
sullen metaphysics (“Strange Day” and “Cold”) to a final foray into
aggressive avant-garde aesthetics. The song is one part actual sonics
and one part manic flurry of TV sounds (apparently a televised debate
about pornography), yet the voices are reversed for added freaky effect.
Here, as elsewhere, deteriorating mental states is the central lyrical
topic, explored through viciously bitter vocals and driven home by a
horror movie synth line and insane asylum drums. The song radiates a
truly terrifying vibe of psychosis, as the protagonist has clearly
disintegrated into lunacy.
Puritanical prudes love to excoriate any form
of sexual expression, especially the crude sort, in media and the arts. On the other hand, the anti-Puritans overcompensate in the opposite
direction by suffusing all aspects of media with explicit sexual
imagery. Both factions do pornography (and themselves, by extension) a
disservice, by slandering it or sanctifying it. By self-righteously
ranting about pornography or hyperbolically elevating it to the status
of the sacred, people draw attention to something that exists for itself
and will always exist for itself, and doesn’t need society’s puerile
commentary to validate or negate it. Naked couples and groups copulating
for the voyeuristic pleasure of others is just reality. That some find
pornography sordidly irreverent to the sanctity of purity is ultimately
immaterial to those who propagate it.
Sexual vice may be what most people think of when they hear the word
“pornography”, but with his 1983 album, Smith effectively metamorphosed
the meaning of the word, digging out its nuances and steeping it in an
aura of metaphysical torment. Not only is Pornography a seminal
Cure album, but it iconically captures the sinister eloquence of a
controversial concept. In so doing, the album gives us some of the best
and bleakest music of the ‘80s.