What We Can Learn About Mental Health From The Cure’s Disintegration

Robert Smith gave us Disintegration twenty five years ago. It is a melancholy pop masterpiece. It’s certainly The Cure’s most enduring album, and a significant influence on modern music. It’s also an unlikely album to garner such popularity – it’s not just that it’s dark, but it’s murky, slow, and the songs are long with repetitive streaks of instrumental weaving. But it’s never boring, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

I also think it’s remarkably misunderstood. While The Cure have always been associated with depression, there is a very specific element of mental illness that Disintegration captures that is rarely heard in a pop song, much less an entire album. It’s not just about sadness, or even breaking up or anything remotely so cliché.  It’s about a complete mental breakdown. I’ll even go one further; The Cure’s entire ‘80s catalog can be interpreted as a cycle of manic depression, with each album representing a point on a bipolar scale.

The Cure’s music resonates with people, usually when they’re young, because it works on an emotionally visceral level. The lyrics matter, and can be very good at times, but not as much as the mood of the song. Which is why a song like “Let’s Go To Bed,” which is mostly fun and sexy, is still a little sad. There’s desperation behind it, and it sounds like the singer wants to go to bed because that’s where he’s spending all of his time anyway. So when I talk about The Cure’s songs reflecting parts of manic depression, or bipolar disorder, I mean they capture emotions unique to a depressive or manic state.

The Cure released their second album, Seventeen Seconds, in 1980, followed by Faith and Pornography. These three albums are the lowest point of depression, but they get increasingly more aggressive. Pornography is plagued by an inability to perceive light or happiness, even as an abstract concept. But it breaks at the lowest point, and the singles collection that follows shows more effort to visit the outside world and even dance and flirt a little. The Top is more fun, but still trying a little too hard. The Head on the Door is better, balanced, and comfortable. It’s a good day, but it’s not manic. That comes with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, which is a completely over-the-top album, especially for The Cure. It’s bright, it’s big, the songs are all over the place, it gets cranky, angry, and violent, but it’s also sweet, clever, energetic, and hypersexual. It’s the kind of album that wakes up at two a.m. and starts redecorating the den, or repainting the kitchen cabinets only to stop halfway and move onto another project.

When it comes to bipolar disorder, most people only know that much. But for people who have lived with it, or experienced it first hand, there is another part not talked about much. It’s the dark part of mania, not just the unpredictability or crankiness, but it’s that too. It’s the crest of emotion before the breakdown, before everything collapses again into a confusing and hurtful mess. That’s Disintegration. Not only does the album capture this mood, it was written for it.

Each song is about a peak of emotions, that crest of feeling before the crash of a manic episode. “Plainsong” sounds innocent enough, but it’s about words that touch way too deep. “Pictures of You” isn’t only about the indescribable twinge of memory, but a micro-examination of the moment it hits you. “Closedown” is one of the clearest examples: “I’m running out of time/ I’m out of step and closing down.” It’s about losing breath because you can’t keep up with reality any longer. Even “Lovesong,” which is a sublime pop gem slipped into the middle of overblown self-examinations, is about committing everything to another person on an uncomfortably deep level.

I think the album really sells itself on the second half, though. If I had to pick a song that best represents Disintegration, it would be “Prayers For Rain,” which just builds, relentlessly, on an idea of calling upon nature. It’s determined, and somehow kind of mad. It’s the breaking point, almost, before shivering into a cold sob during “The Same Deep Water As You.”

Which leads us to the title track. “Disintegration” is a song for mental breakdowns. It’s not just explaining feelings anymore. It’s gushing, with an endless flow of words and excuses and contradictions and anger and resentment and apologies and… it’s so familiar to anyone who’s actually disintegrated, mentally, and watched themselves change into an incoherent monster. He says really horrible things in this song, but they don’t make much sense. He’s just saying them because he’s driven by confusion and pain. It always hits like a brick at the beginning of the last verse, when he goes into “and it’s all come back ’round to breaking apart again/ Breaking apart like I’m made up of glass again.” It just doesn’t stop. He let’s it all fall out of his skull, because it’s there and there’s nowhere else for it to go. It’s the only song on the album with that kind of unexplained electric energy, that seemingly comes from nowhere. In the context of the album, it’s unsettling. In real life, it’s terrifying.

 

“Homesick” follows, and it sounds like all the energy released on “Disintegration” is never going to come back, and it doesn’t. It’s a heap on the floor, begging to fix the mess it’s made. But the album ends with “Untitled” which is the most self-aware song on the album, and actually lacks the emotional cliff of all the other songs. Instead, it’s just a reflection – it says, I know this is over, and it’s my fault, and I keep doing this, and I don’t know what to do next. The syntax of the last couple of lines mimics the gushing rant of the last verse of “Disintegration,” but shorter and calmer. “Feeling the monster climb deeper inside of me/ Feeling him gnawing my heart away hungrily/ I’ll never lose this pain/ Never dream of you again.” I think the monster is what we heard on “Disintegration.”

Why does Disintegration endure among The Cure’s vast body of work? Because it’s bold and amazing, mostly. But I think Smith tapped into very deep and complicated emotions rarely examined in pop culture, not because we’re not familiar with them, but because they’re difficult. It’s hard to get mental illness right, creatively, and The Cure isn’t even necessarily the best exploration. Their music appeals to adolescents because it’s not always very mature (sometimes they can be very mature, and it’s always a pleasant surprise, but I digress). But it is very primal, which is something we latch onto when we’re young and inexperienced. And it’s a way of looking at depression, anxiety, and mania without getting so clinical. It’s a way for people who experience it without the support of someone who understands to feel validated and understood. That’s incredibly important in a society that doesn’t know how to talk about mental illness. So Disintegration explains a complicated part of mental illness without once saying “I’m sad,” or “I’m depressed,” because it’s a raging manic on its own.

After twenty five years, Disintegration is still falling apart gracefully.

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Cody Ray Shafer

Cody is a writer and media critic living in Salt Lake City, Utah. When he's not writing he plays guitar and sings with his wife Sara Beth. They have one son, Oliver, and pug, Hugo.

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