Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
According to sixteenth-century wisdom, one can identify someone who is in love based on a disheveled physical appearance. Shakespeare’s As You Like It describes a true lover as having a sunken eye, neglected beard, ungartered hose, unbanded bonnet, unbuttoned sleeve, and untied shoe so that “everything about you [is] demonstrating a careless desolation.” To be in love – more specifically, to be in unrequited love – is to be in the midst of a personal disintegration.
On the one hand, this checklist is but one more example of how early modern thinking refused to differentiate between one’s self and one’s outward appearance. On the other, the basic idea that impossible love would lead a person to disregard social convention and personal hygiene is, in relative historical terms, a remarkably sensitive reading of the individual psyche. Speaking mostly for the ten years or so that the surly teenaged version of myself donned “the trappings and the suits of woe,” I’d suggest that, even 400 years later, the outward signs demarking the presence of desolate love remain mostly the same but with a single addition: a true lover – a true lover and therefore a miserable lover – listens to the Cure’s Disintegration, usually in a bedroom, often in the dark. Because so many true lovers of this variety are teenagers following demands of the album’s liner notes (THIS MUSIC HAS BEEN MIXED TO BE PLAYED LOUD SO TURN IT UP), such lovers are often listening with headphones. Such lovers are often alone.
Before we get to the album itself, the paradox of something famous for moping like Hamlet having been designed to be played at maximum volume, and the fairly serious challenges it presents for anyone attempting to replicate its unbuttoned sleeves or ungartered hose, it’s worth acknowledging that the schema I am working with here implies that happy or content lovers are doing it wrong. This is largely because the album isn’t really about love, or even about being lovesick, but about a specific feeling of love or lovesickness. This feeling is a huge one, something like realizing that one has been living a lie and that one is not living in a world of sober reason, noble love, and perfect justice, but is instead dwelling in a dank and mossy abyss where love and madness commingle drunkenly, happiness is just another word for mania, and one will probably be alone forever.
In other words, the sort of love that Disintegration is talking about closely resembles what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as the Dionysian. Borrowing heavily from Greek mythology, Nietzsche believed that the best art allowed us to linger briefly in madness, to dance inebriated through the alleys of one’s darkened city without purpose or direction, in order to make it possible to go through the trouble of making one’s self acceptable in the fully-lit, Apollonian hallways of reasoned, scientific society. While the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, forwarded most forcefully in The Birth of Tragedy, can mostly be written off as the personal justifications of a man predisposed to skew towards madness and an altered consciousness, the basic idea that the darkness helps one navigate the light continues to inform the hardest of the hardcore Cure fans who, after seeing them on tour this year, will have to un-rat their hair and wash off copious amounts of Robert Smith makeup in order to telecommute to an office meeting in the morning.
This Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy is also roughly analogous to the guiding philosophy of early modern pastoral plays, including the aforementioned As You Like It, in which characters need to enter the Dionysian forest, home of sexual escapades and gender flux, in order to be better equipped for the Apollonian court where the “lunatic, lover, and the poet” can be dismissed neatly and safely as people to susceptible to imagination.
All of this is to say that Disintegration isn’t interested in the happily content aspects of love, because that stuff is for other albums by different bands. One might argue that the Cure get close to that kind of love on Wish, particularly in “Friday I’m In Love,” but even that song includes the manic bridge about eating in the middle of the night. Nonetheless, Disintegration is replete with Dionysian songs about memory, nightmares, and substance abuse. Its most romantic songs are Romantic-with-a-capital-R, conflating promises of eternal love with the sounds of thunder in order to remind us that love is serious and grave.
But here’s the deal: Disintegration isn’t about depression. The idea that it is a mopey, lugubrious album is just not true. The Cure made a few albums that were, most notably Faith; there, the songs drift intentionally but aimlessly with synthesized drums, droning melodies, and echoed vocals that have a hard time getting out of bed to eat something, let alone get dressed up for a night on “Fascination Street.” Disintegration, however, was built to be played loud. Even its most overtly depressed song, “Closedown,” makes its promises of ending things on top of driving, vigorous drums. It is music to move to, even if that movement is the stumbling of the drunken and heartbroken.
The genius of Disintegration is that it functions like a full-access pass to Robert Smith’s Dionysian playground. I may doubt that “Lullaby” describes a recurring and genuinely horrifying nightmare of Robert Smith’s, but when I’m listening to it, I believe not only that the spider man is real, but that he is, indeed, always hungry. From the opening chimes and majestic organ swell of “Plainsong,” we are allowed to live “at the edge of the world” by identifying with and through the idiosyncratic-and-specific-but-also-sorta-genderless voice and persona of Robert Smith. As such, covers of these songs are almost certainly doomed to feel like someone telling you about a dream that was had by a friend of theirs.
And let’s be honest, most Cure covers are borderline awful; “Lovesong” alone has received dozens of lovingly rendered versions, sung or screamed by bands that really, really mean it but don’t really get it. To cover the Cure’s songs successfully, one needs the lightness of touch to impose one’s own Dionysian visions upon these songs without diminishing the magical/drunken/mad energy that makes these songs about desolation so vibrant and alive.
Here are fourteen covers of the songs of Disintegration that are more than just the SAD or ANGRY versions one can run into if one is not careful.
Blacklist Royals – Plainsong
Seven Saturdays – Plainsong
Though “Plainsong” isn’t the most famous song on the album, it’s quite possibly the best. It is one song for which I have a specific memory of the time I listened to it and loved it the most: I was a self-important college freshman listening to it loudly on headphones on a Saturday as snow fell outside my dorm room window and the whole world seemed deep in hibernation. The moment felt right for this song that is huge but so very private. These two versions (I cheated) approach this problem differently. Blacklist Royals reject the premise of the question entirely, selectively sampling the lyrics in order to see what happens when something from Disintegration is made to sound as though it was made by the version of the Cure that made “Boys Don’t Cry.” The result is a shockingly successful alt-pop shout-along that goes a long way toward explaining how this band inspired bands from so many different genres. More faithfully, the Seven Saturdays version builds cacophony out of layered strings, finding Romance the way that a string quartet might.
Caroline Corn – Pictures of You
“Pictures of You” gets covered a lot. It gets quirked up. It gets layered with grief. Rarely, though, does it feel this lonesome. While I miss the song’s extended intro and rhythmic, hypnotic guitar work, this country-tinged version figures out a way to dwell on the past without ignoring the present. One doesn’t need to dance wildly to have too much whiskey and go through a box of photos one wouldn’t dare open sober.
Stripmall Architecture – Closedown
At first blush, the trip-hop bleating of an almost-reggae beat seems out of place for this song about “running out of time,” but it picks up the song’s driving irony about wanting “to feel the real relief of something more than mockery / if only I could fill my heart with love” on an album with no shortage of love. It would maybe be too tongue in cheek if it were the only version of “Closedown” in existence, but it weaves its own ephemeral, Casiotoned magic too.
Nataly Dawn – Lovesong
Kumbia Queers – Kumbia Dark (Lovesong)
“Lovesong” was the big single from the album, and it’s been gotten dead wrong more than any song I can think of. The mistake bands make is gilding it with an earnest sultriness or dirge-y sultriness or scream-y sultriness. I get it. It’s a love song, sure, but the song is a promise to do the daily grind of love, not to make descending handprints on the interior window while having sex in someone else’s car before the Titanic meets the iceberg. While I wish there was a way to nail the vocal’s sparseness of this mundane promise without ditching the really great guitar riffs of the original, Nataly Dawn shows us the right way to do that. Her voice is almost bored – but only almost. It might be understood as sexy, but it is absolutely not sultry. On the other end of the spectrum, Kumbia Queers give us a Spanish-language cumbia cover of the song that explores ways in which “Lovesong” is about a love that is othered and definitely not the sort of love that permeates mainstream Western movies about princesses and/or sinking boats.
Stolearm – Last Dance (The Cure cover)
The album’s deep cuts tend to only inspire covers by bands that seem to have no interest in leaving the Dionysian at all. Most versions of these middle songs only exist as screamed versions that layer goth on goth. This cover of “Last Dance” gets close to that, especially at the beginning, but the vocals here mine the cheesiest parts of the ’80s so tenderly that we are reminded that many fans of the Cure also listened to Richard Marx. There’s a harmonica where one might expect a saxophone. One of the many synthesizer riffs sounds like a pan flute. This Dionysus wears a skinny tie and sunglasses.
Music Box Mania – Lullaby (The Cure cover)
Okay, this is so on the nose as to be ridiculous. However, every other cover of “Lullaby” that I could find was trying so hard to be scary that it completely lost track of the fact that the original swaddles the terror of being eaten by the spider man in the bedclothes of a genuine lullaby. By getting that part right, this complete gimmick of a cover ends more haunting than other versions I’ve heard that double down on making the lyrics terrifying by trying to curdle one’s blood. Taking a lesson from horror movies made around the time the original version of this song was made, we would do well to remember that the clown in It wasn’t just terrifying because of his teeth but because of his floppy shoes and red balloon. I’d love to hear a cover of this song that gets it right without having to lose the lyrics to do so.
Xu Xu Fang – Fascination Street (The Cure cover)
Deft production layers the aching and strange organ music here with the static pops and crackles of vinyl and nostalgia, a fascinating move for what are the angriest and most manic five minutes on Disintegration. Xu Xu Fang keeps the driving low-end of the original and boozes up the vocal delivery, slurring what the original snarls, wise enough to not try to out-Robert Smith Robert Smith.
Halo in Reverse – Prayers for Rain (The Cure cover)
“Prayers for Rain” is another deep cut that is hard to find in non-vampire form. Halo in Reverse’s version is plenty undead in its own right, but it’s tight. It keeps moving forward, adding a skittish set of blips and using every bit of vocal punctuation like a springboard instead of a destination, successfully avoiding the pitfall of making a Cure song into something singular and static. The vocals are serious and know their way around Sisters of Mercy, but the lyrics really come to the fore and nothing gets gilded affectation. It’s goth, sure, but it’s goth like a Bronte novel, not goth like LARPing with a chili dog outside the Tastee-Freez.
Vlis7 – The Same Deep Water as You (The Cure cover)
Okay, I have no idea who this guy is. There is a reason, though, that this mostly anonymous cover has gotten 20,000 views and a lot of comment-section love. So many versions of “The Same Deep Water as You” focus on all of the kissing and forget about the goodbye. This is arguably the darkest song on the album, and vlis7 nails that darkness without inflecting it too heavily. It’s about as good as one dude and an acoustic guitar can do the Cure. Watch him play it with an awesome cat on his bed here.
Big Blood – Disintegration (The Cure cover)
Despite being an album that I associate with my teens and early twenties, Disintegration is an album made by someone approaching his thirties. Smith was 29 (the same age as Hamlet, a character also associated with college and new-adulthood) when he made it, and that weighed heavily on him; “I think the darker side of that record came from the fact I was gonna be thirty,” he said in one interview. The title track is the song with “babies and everything” that reminds us that young love isn’t the only brand of impossible love. Big Blood’s cover tries pretty hard – and it changes “babies and everything” to “babies and frequency” which, what? – but it’s also complex and interesting and, as weird as it gets, always intentional, operating with a twisted and distorted control that befits the original.
Stoned Jesus – Homesick (The Cure cover)
The careful enunciation of a band singing in a second language works perfectly with the most addiction-themed song on the album. They pull it off in part because these guys love “Homesick” in a way that isn’t distracting, but also because they love a part of it – “to never go home” – that is sort of buried in the original. The result is a cover that helps one hear the original version differently.
Eating Cake with Friends – Untitled (The Cure cover)
Again, I’m not sure how to feel about versions that get rid of an extended intro when so much of this album is extended intro, but the grainy, home-movie quality of this version nails the part of the song it’s trying to nail. It’s probably the least Dionysian cover here, something far more befitting of Faith than Disintegration, particularly in its numbed abruptness, but it is moving in its own right.
This was a long post and I squeezed two additional versions into an album that, even at just twelve songs, runs almost seventy minutes. This has always been an album that stops just short of being crushed by its own weight, and I may well have ended up on the wrong side of that equation. Revisiting Disintegration as fully as I did was like paging through an old yearbook – or, better yet, somehow getting to see all of the painfully earnest things I wrote on other people’s yearbooks. It wasn’t always pleasant. But that’s not the point of Dionysus.
Multiple versions of Disintegration, including a 3-CD deluxe edition with demos and live tracks, can be found on Amazon.