Thursday, May 28, 2009

Random Release: Turn it up or turn it down

This is going to be one of those entries that no matter what I say, I won’t feel it’s substantial considering my years with and closeness to this album. But again, this is the challenge of the random release.

Even if you didn’t know before, if you’ve kept up with my blog (and bully for you if you have) you’ll have figured out by now that I’m a pretty solid fan of the Cure and despite marginal let downs in recent years, can still find something positive to say about nearly every release on down the line from Three Imaginary Boys all the way through 4:13 Dream. Of their many eras – and yes, there have been quite a few – I have to say that their “heyday” for me was roughly 1980-82 when they began to explore the tragic landscapes that labeled them with the Goth moniker I know they detest. Ironically enough, the three albums of that era: 17 Seconds, Faith and Pornography, are three of the most overlooked by both critics and fans. Of these three, Pornography seems to get the least amount of nods and is probably second only to The Top in most underrated, disregarded Cure album. Pornography is “allegedly” part one of the “Dark” or “Blood” Trilogy that continued with Disintegration and ended (quite unspectacularly) with Bloodflowers. This was a trilogy I’d never even heard of until the latter album was released, so I just thought it was a bit o’ reference/marketing hype, but fine, whatever, have it your way, Bob. But to me, the “Dark Trilogy” of the Cure’s cannon is these three early career, early 80s albums – the dark diamond being Pornography.
Of these three I believe I picked up Pornography last. I based my album purchases (oh so many years ago) on songs from the Standing on a Beach compilation based on how much I liked them. I remember that the Hanging Garden, the only representation of Pornography on the collection, scared me a bit and with hindsight I realize I needed some prep time with earlier, less daunting releases before I at last sunk my ears into the set of tribal dirges that make up this album. If the Hanging Garden scared me, the rest of these tracks threw me into the (shiver &) shakes of full on white terror. Basically, if 17 Seconds is a dire outlook of the future and Faith is the hopelessness found in achieving said future, Pornography is the final, writhing, dance-decent into hell before you’re finally snuffed out in a fit of gut wrenching screams.

Man, I love it.

I mean let’s face it, when the opening lines of the entire album are, “It doesn’t matter if we all die…,” things probably aren’t going to pick up much from there and Mad Bob spends the next 40 odd minutes telling you all about it. That album opener, One Hundred Years, with it’s near (possibly literally) mechanized drums, cranky bass, harsh keyboards and drill-like, spiral-downwards guitars, pretty much sets the blueprint for every other note you will hear on this album. It’s dense, layered, violent and despairingly beautiful.

Things continue as promised with A Short Term Effect, as chiming, almost mocking guitars segue into more heavy-handed drumming reminiscent of say Joy Division’s Sound of Music, but with an abrasive, metallic, hammer-to-anvil crunch that leaves that reference sounding more like a distant early warning than a looming and immediate menace.

When I was a kid first listening to the Cure on the bus late at night after some scholastic dork competition or other, I always thought the jumble drums, staccato bass and spiraling guitars of the album’s only single, the Hanging Garden, was the splayed backdrop for Robert’s view on environmentalism. Later when I saw the video, a morose affair with masks and taxidermy animals in a (you guessed it) garden, that thought was somewhat solidified. Is this an accurate assessment? I dunno. But again, this is the Cure, who’ve never been overly straightforward much less political in their songs. I mean you know the deal is bad, but you don’t always know the why and the wherefore. Still, this song is clearly the “lightest” moment on the record despite the wailing line, “Cover my face as the animals die!” You don’t believe me? Well, get a load of this next number…
Siamese Twins is without a doubt one of the most sinister songs ever written and one of the darkest of the entire Cure catalog, even making some of the most depressing moments of Disintegration look like a day trip to pick daisies. I mean at least with the Big D you’ve got shimmering, dreamy beauty, slowly drifting you to death as you would to sleep and blissful all the while. Siamese Twins, the climax of this album, is a five and a half minute, eyes-wide-open gaze into the nightmare that is Mad Bob’s soul. From the first line, “I chose an eternity of this,” you get the idea that things aren't exactly chipper and the deliberate delivery of the literally pounding drum and bass pattern, flourished with icy, biting guitars, only enhances the feeling of inner dread amongst outer chaos. Robert is quick to let you know what’s on his mind and he’s clearly not happy with someone, going into elaborate detail and explaining the dire constructs of the situation before taking matters into his own hand and lamenting in the aftermath, “Is it always like this?” Well, for the sake of continuity in this album, I hope so!

Peel back the lyrical imagery and a number of these songs are essentially about damaged relationships (and not necessarily love gone wrong), which is no surprise considering the Cure was splintering at this point and this would be the last album with bassist Simon Gallup for three years. Afterward, drummer Lol Tolhurst would move officially/permanently to keyboards and Robert would take on a more “hands-all” role. And I do have to take a further digression here and point out that while Lol has always been sorta sniggered at for his drumming abilities on early Cure records, he really stepped up to the plate here, bringing the noise with deafening poise and triumphantly setting the foundation for Robert to spew his emotions all over the tiles.

And while Lol would eventually find disfavor in his childhood friend’s eyes, this was still a few years away and the dysfunctional subject of the Figurehead (a fine and fitting follow up/companion piece to Siamese Twins) is someone else Robert feels worthy of his disdain, chiding their purity, speaking of secrets and lies, confirming that he can “never say no to anyone but you” and concluding that he will “never be clean again.” Heavy stuff.

The closest thing to a “pop” song on the album, a Strange Day was for a long time my favorite track. I remember how excited I was when I figured out how to play the guitar breakdown at the apex of the song (all 4 or 5 notes of it). And while the music may be slightly more “uplifting,” the lyrics describe a loss of vision or foresight and then a sense of moving on that basically sums of up Smith’s outlook on the future of his band. It could have easily been a follow up single but really, an interesting thing about the songs on this album is how immediate most of them are, almost catchy. Ease up a bit on the doom and gloom production, speed them up, change the approach, and you’ve got yourself a nice set of pop songs.

The album closes off with two of the bleakest tracks in the set, beginning with the pre-industrial clang of Cold, with a cello-like and forbidding keyboard strain running throughout and accented by cymbals enhanced by so much flange and reverb that they sound like sheet metal being dropped down an elevator shaft. An apparent tale of love in its final stages, Robert conjures images of the past to remind him how dead his present is and his misery is so complete that the soon-to-be-ex’s name is “like ice into my heart, ” finally mourning that nothing can save them. As this song fades in a clamored crescendo of aural emotion, gurgling, back-masked voices erupt and lead into the title track, a din of chaotic drums and scrambled mumblings overridden by an ominous keyboard riff and Robert’s manic, plaintive vocals little more than audible in the overall mishmash of the noise. And yet despite the confusion, this song sums up the album nicely, and as the racket dies down Robert can be heard frantically yelping, “I must fight this sickness, find a cure!” Again, one can’t wonder at the poetic irony here, the strain within the band, the pending and acrimonious departure of Simon Gallup and Robert’s disheartened frame of mind, all coming together and musically narrated in these eight songs.

Everything about Pornography seems to be about endings -- moving on, closure, death, the final details on a time of suffering. After the album came out and the subsequent tour, Robert, feeling the Cure was essentially over, would join Siouxsie and the Banshees as guitarist, recording with them the album Hyaena, as well as his side project with Steven Severin the Glove, and even work with Lol as a duo on some of the Cure’s most popular (and even upbeat) early material, namely the dance-esque singles The Walk, The Lovecats and Let’s Go to Bed. So, as we know, it wasn’t really over.
If you can hold your breath for that long, Pornography begs to be listened to front to back without pauses or breaks. The volume can vary: louder if you want it to reflect the inner struggles of your own tortured soul, softer if you simply want to watch from a distance the dark, twisted world of Mad Bob’s anguish. The times I sat around thinking evil thoughts to this soundtrack are doubtlessly numerous, yet when I got older and more actively social, I put this album aside and considered it a bittersweet memory. However, in recent years I can appreciate it’s aesthetic value above the emotional empathy it provided me in adolescence. Time has been very good to Pornography and critics have come around to it even if many fans seem to overlook it for the Head on the Door or Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (which both sound very dated to me) in the Cure’s pre-Big D existence. And I don’t think that it’s a case of being an album for the super fan, but really the fan of a certain mindset. In fact, I can see people who don’t like the Cure overall but do like this album. They never did anything else like this, nor could they. It speaks of a time when Robert’s world was falling apart in every sense and his band mates were contributing to this in both fact as well as music. Pornography is an album for the truly wretched, those who have given up even on despair and lost themselves completely to an outpouring of raw, bitter emotion. So turn it up or turn it down, but please turn it on.

Also, I have to share this review from Robert Christgau the “Dean of American Rock Critics”:
"In books/And films/And in life/And in heaven/The sound of slaughter/As your body turns . . ."--no, I can't go on. I mean, why so glum, chum? Cheer up; look on the bright side. You got your contract, right? And your synthesizers, bet you'll have fun with them. Believe me, kid, it will pass. C

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