Happy 25th Anniversary to The Cure’s Wish, originally released April 21, 1992.
What takes shape in the wake of soft, black, velvety perfection? It could have gone any number of ways. In truth, Disintegration might have been the end. With the commercial triumph of The Cure’s 1989 conceptual opus, the British rock group were ascending to unanticipated echelons of stardom. In siring Disintegration, frontman Robert Smith desired to create a meaningful legacy, but hadn’t aspired for The Cure to headline stadiums. And far from reassuringly, the band’s American label Elektra entirely misjudged the album, predicting its gravity would alienate Top 40 masses smitten with singles like crooning-crowd favorite “Just Like Heaven.”
They couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, even mainstream audiences lavished eager ears on the immersive orchestration of Disintegration, propelling it to chart prominence across much of the world. Tantalized by the intoxicating terror of “Lullaby,” wild fancy of “Fascination Street,” and earnest simplicity of “Lovesong,” thousands across Europe and North America clamored to the 76-show Prayer Tour of ’89. And while it should be noted The Cure succeeded while upholding their artistic vision, the tour left them fatigued, distanced, and hungry for reprieve.
The aggressive schedule very nearly flattened the band (to the point where Smith vowed they’d never tour again), and it took awhile for them to recoup. But, by the time The Cure re-entered the studio two years later, they did so shuffled and recharged.
Released on April 21, 1992, Smith’s 33rd birthday, Wish had the unenviable position of following a masterpiece (one that still continues to rise in significance). Still, The Cure’s ninth studio album is remarkable in its own right. It’s rowdier, headier, and just rearing to rock. Keyboardist Roger O’Donnell had left the band following The Prayer Tour. And ex-roadie Perry Bamonte joined on guitars (and sometimes keys), adding to the string-strumming talents of Smith and Porl Thompson (who would later dip away from The Cure to fulfill his fantasy of playing with Page and Plant) and faultless drummer Boris Williams. Fresh blood (in the form of new talent) and the newfound trio of guitars gave way to a frolic sense of collaboration and community in the music-making process. Where Disintegration deliberately delves into dark atmosphere, Wish wanders freely—even ferociously—entreating vibrancy and play.
While the rearranged lineup injected a more adventurous attitude, the band’s physical surroundings likely did as well. Sixty miles west of London, Oxfordshire’s Shipton Manor (colloquially known as The Manor) was home to 19th century watercolorist William Turner, and was later purchased by Richard Branson in 1970, who fashioned it into a modern, if pastoral recording space. From September 1991 to February 1992, during the making of Wish, the band tucked into the Tudor mansion. The endless rooms and cozy shared spaces meant the five-piece could coalesce and draw apart as needed.
Although Smith has final say on every Cure endeavor, everyone contributed to Wish in their own way. The process began, as it usually does, with listening nights in which the band shared home recordings and critiques over drinks. They brought in home demos for some 30 songs, eliminating a few and tracking others. (In addition to the 12 songs on the album itself, there are six album-worthy B-sides, and four mesmerizing instrumental outtakes released separately as the limited-edition cassette Lost Wishes). After creating dozens of instrumental tracks (starting with bass and drums), Smith added the words and they fine-tuned the music to fit. And, as with all Cure albums except their debut, Smith co-produced Wish, along with Dave Allen, who had been working with the band since The Top in 1984.
With the majority of Wish in concert pitch (the exception being the colossally popular single “Friday I’m in Love”) and the prevalence of guitars, the album sounds immediate—and live. It’s an extraordinary feat, especially given the variety of emotions, plots, and textures. The album's original working title, Swell, hints at the enormity of feeling that Wish conveys.
It all starts with “Open.” To say that The Cure have a penchant for absolutely riveting album intros is an understatement. Sonically setting the tone for what’s to come, “Open” is a fine example. Ostensibly, the song is about being dragged to a party, feeling out of place amidst unfamiliar faces, and the vices we rely upon to endure. But it could be interpreted, just like the closing track “End,” as commentary on rockstar life (“I can’t take it anymore / this it I’ve become / this is it like I get / when my life’s going numb / I just keep moving my mouth / I just keep moving my feet”). Careening guitars encircle the words in eddying disillusionment and enthralling disorientation. The effect is hypnotic and strangely really fun to dance to—that is, if you’re someone who identifies with the lyrics and generally feels uncomfortable walking into a club sober.
It’s possible that the well-read Smith also points to poet Sylvia Plath in “Open.” Lyrics, “and the way the rain comes down hard / that’s the way I feel inside…” closely echo Plath. In Letters Home, she wrote: “I am glad the rain is coming down hard. It’s the way I feel inside.” The allusion evokes Plath’s motif of duality, which features prominently in The Cure oeuvre and pervades Wish—an album that swings between isolation and connection, elation and despondence, hope and resignation, as well as reality and make-believe.
The dreamy, cloud-bursting single “High” follows. Delirious with desire and admiration, the song suits its title, embodying the myriad delights of feeling in love with the slightest tinge of signature Cure wistfulness. From there, that touch of melancholy plummets into the endless abyss of heartbreak in “Apart” and “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea.”
Narrated in the third person, “Apart” has always made me ache. It unpacks a relationship intended to, though not destined to, last “forever,” as the couple drift from each other. The fact it’s told as if it’s about other people slays me. It’s as though the pain was so acute, the protagonist had to detach completely in order to move past it. The hushed vocals delivering biting truths make the track all the more compelling.
Demonstrating the practiced art of delusion, “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” might well be about the indulgence of romantic love, but Smith has said drugs were the inspiration. Regardless, it’s quintessential Cure and is beyond brilliant to behold, especially live. It’s lush and layered, and the guitarwork alone is prime proof that the band deserve a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Even people who claim to not like The Cure (shocking, I realize, but yes, these confused souls are out there) admit to this song’s impeccable instrumentation and masterful storytelling.
The psychedelic haziness of “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” jolts into “Wendy Time,” which has its own narcotic feel albeit of a different flavor. Functionally, it effectively shifts the midway album mood from heavy and bleak to light and whimsical. But the song itself has never been one of my favorites. Something about it unnerves me, and whether purposeful or not, it seems wrapped in falsehood and shame.
As if shaking off the unpleasantness of a night gone awry, the peppy and bright “Doing the Unstuck” throws open the curtains and beams in with the sentiment “it’s a perfect day for letting go….let’s get happy!” There’s a boundless verve about the track that is contagious, and it truly is the perfect tee-up for the one Cure single that everyone knows, “Friday I’m in Love.” Playful and carefree, the song twirls with gleeful abandon and showcases the band’s sophisticated pop prowess. I have fond memories of listening to this song in high school, back when it came out, but if the band only made this caliber of craft, I wouldn’t be the fervent fan I am.
Thankfully, the remainder of Wish reaches deeply.
“Trust” has long been one of my most cherished. It’s an assertion of love and a solemn, wide-eyed promise meant to quell doubt. But it’s also a question: Does the recipient of the words have faith in the relationship? The song’s open-endedness intrigues and challenges me—and, over the years, my interpretation of whether the couple continue onto happily-ever-after varies. (In full disclosure, I’ll confess I idealistically always want to believe they will.)
Aurally, and even compositionally, “A Letter to Elise” reminds me of “Pictures of You” (from Disintegration). Both are beautiful, heart-wrenching singles so brimming with emotion that they nearly decimate first-time listeners and still stun those of us who have heard them thousands of times. As with many Smith penned songs, the wordplay is incandescent and the lyrics are endlessly rewarding. For example, “At least I’d lose this sense of sensing something else / that hides away / from me and you / there’re worlds to part / with aching looks and breaking hearts / and all the prayers your hands can make / oh I just take as much as you can throw / and then throw it all away.” Like the works of revered poets, I’ve pored over Smith’s words repeatedly. Unfortunately, despite the brilliance of “A Letter to Elise,” The Cure rarely perform it live.
The bristling, snarling guitars of “Cut” sting like a smack upside the head—a bitter acknowledgement of cruel reality. For as much as Wish explores various moods and feelings, this is the first display of rage on the album. As we approach the album’s conclusion, this cathartic break feels necessary, even overdue. Anger is not a go-to emotion for me though, so I often skip this track in favor of the depressingly gorgeous “To Wish Impossible Things.” As Smith repeats “All I wish / is gone away,” the void of what’s been lost grows increasingly acute. And yet it’s wondrous in its hollow. I find myself pining for this song when I’m hopeless and down.
And so, we come full circle to the self-disenchantment posed in “Open” with “End,” a swan song—not just for Wish, but possibly for The Cure. Offering an earnest plea, Smith sings, “please stop loving me” and sounds like he really has reached the end of his rockstar life—a “dead end,” where he not only feels at a loss for words, but that he’s truly losing himself. The tour that accompanied the album was exhaustive and spanned 111 shows – even larger than the tour promoting Disintegration. Throughout it all, the band talked about it being the last time. Fortunately, this didn’t prove to be true. But Wish marked the culmination of a special era for The Cure. They have yet to regain the level of commercial success and fame they once had, but maybe that’s the very reason Smith is willing to persist.
Twenty-five years later, I, for one, am extraordinarily grateful.
In the liner notes for Wish, under the credits, hangs a passage from the great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley: “We look before and after, / and pine for what is not: / our sincerest laughter / with some pain is fraught; / our sweetest songs are those that tell / of saddest thought…”
Happy birthday, Robert, and thank you for making music that celebrates the beauty of every feeling.