Happy 35th Anniversary to The Cure’s fourth studio album Pornography, originally released May 4, 1982.
Although it clocks in under 44 minutes, The Cure’s Pornography is endless consolation for those, like me, who find themselves most awake in the dead of night. Like a nihilistic driver accelerating without care, Pornography teases out the dark, defeatist impulses that lie within. And yet, paradoxically, its conception is a courageous act of self-preservation—a valiant promise to endure.
At 22, Robert Smith, vocalist and guitarist for The Cure, was on the brink of destruction. After their kicky post-punk debut Three Imaginary Boys in 1979, the band ushered in the ‘80s with a more somber sound and weightier themes. The ticking introspection of sophomore album Seventeen Seconds (1980) drifted into ceremonious despair in successor Faith (1981). By the time the band completed their fourth studio album, Pornography, Smith was harrowed, entwined in his demons, and contemplating suicide.
Fortunately (as a loving fan, I cannot emphasize the word enough), Smith didn’t surrender. He recognized his dismal state and devised Pornography as a last-ditch coping mechanism to wrangle the impending crisis. He channeled his depressive thoughts and tendencies into the record, approaching the endeavor with fierce solemnity and intent.
Under the snowy, bone-chilling shiver of December 1981, Smith took to Rhino Studio in Surrey, in southeast England, armed with a dozen fledgling aural sketches. Drummer Lol Tolhurst and bassist Simon Gallup joined, too. But all was not well. Concerned about Smith’s deepening ties with Steve Severin, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ bassist, Gallup wasn’t wholly invested in Pornography, fissuring the kinship between Smith and Gallup. Even still, the trio tracked several stellar demos in just six days.
The words to Pornography crystallized in a hallucinatory haze, as Smith ambled around London with narcotics as company. But before the band could record, Smith sought the right personnel. He met with different producers, consciously steering away from Mike Hedges who had technically overseen the band’s three prior albums. But the truth of the matter is that regardless of who co-produced then (or co-produces now), Smith’s direction is paramount. And he had a very particular sound in mind for this new psychological outpouring. Enchanted by Phil Thornalley’s engineering on The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk (1981), Smith entrusted the youthful producer with the job. In January 1982, recording commenced at London’s RAK Studio One. The fact that The Cure emerged that spring with anything at all is something of a wonder, and testament to Smith’s unabating, albeit maniacal, vision.
The band had all but detached from reality, reveling in their rockstar cloister. Drinks and drugs were quotidian decor. Nights at the studio stretched past dawn, with an intense, intoxicated Smith immured in his own world, separated from Gallup and Tolhurst, who were far less earnest. By day, The Cure stayed at label Fiction Records, in an addled, hypnagogic state, barring entrance to visitors (which effectively shut down the office). In partial band biography Ten Imaginary Years, Smith recounts, “I slept on the floor behind the setee with a blanket drawing-pinned to the wall so it was like a tent. I had all these little bits, things I’d found in the street and taken back to my nest. It really got out of hand.”
Despite this murky cocktail—with fluctuating parts of alcohol, hallucinogens, stimulants, seclusion, quarreling, and depression—the rampaging artist in Smith prevailed. And out of the nocturnal claustrophobic mix shrieked Pornography.
Any controversy about the band’s use of the potentially inflammatory album title, or any “sex sells” gimmickry, is quickly quelled by a simple glance at the cover art. Featuring minimalistic red type and the group’s three smeared faces, indistinct amid infernal glow, the graphics are certainly eye-catching, even provocative, but hardly erotic. Smith explains, “To some people, someone obese in a newspaper with no clothes on is pornographic but, for me, it’s the way people open the paper and laugh. It’s not the subject which is pornographic but the interpretation of it.”
And critics didn’t necessarily react favorably. At the time of its release in May 1982, reviews were varied, with many decrying its indulgence and inaccessibility.
But that’s part of the reason I love it. Pornography is metamorphic. It’s a thrashing mind, imprisoned, peering into every sordid crevice and working its way through. I’ve been listening to it regularly for the last 23 years, and I’m still unpacking its meaning. All the clipped thoughts, all the opaque allusions, all the gripping imagery—I will never fully decipher it, but it encircles my brain, demanding again and again to be heard, felt, danced upon. The Cure’s Pornography is delectable therapy really, if you give it a chance.
Some may be inclined to push it aside. After all, the album’s very first line (“It doesn’t matter if we all die”) isn’t exactly a warm welcome, but expressing ambivalence isn’t succumbing to it. In opening track “One Hundred Years,” we spin in futility, pawns in a senseless cycle (“Over and over / We die one after the other / One after the other”). Yet the vocal delivery and rhythm are alive with agitation and urgency, thrusting us across the wasteland. Headlong, we hurtle toward something—even if we can’t surmise the destination. (But then, I’ve never been afraid of black holes.)
No clarity is delivered in the album’s second track, “A Short Term Effect.” In fact, it’s much the opposite. The vast, infinite nothingness of the opener has led us to a deadened chamber, with warbled echoes and drug-induced spells. Smith had studied mental illnesses and the oft cruel treatment of patients in the months leading up to Pornography. Here, in this neglected space, this “atmosphere that rots with time,” nurture condemns nature, and self turns into stranger.
The waking nightmare continues in the album’s only single, “The Hanging Garden,” with its illusory freedom. Fleeing to the untamed outdoors seems a break, but the purity fast morphs into perversion. Screeching creatures are afoot, and we retreat from the wailing with the realization there may be no escape.
Indeed, the first lines of “Siamese Twins” (“I chose an eternity of this / Like falling angels / The world disappeared / Laughing into the fire / Is it always like this?”) seem acquiescent, a dulling retreat to the existential void of “One Hundred Years.” But as the song unfolds, the Siamese twins tear apart, excising a long-entrenched influence—or maybe even a deep-seated love.
Upsetting the balance is alienating, even if it’s ultimately a change for the positive. Whether abandoning a relationship or some part of your brain to which you’ve grown accustomed and attached, the change drops you unsteadily in vacuous craters of doubt. Distraction beckons. Such uncertainty colors the lyrical realm of “The Figurehead,” a formidable track jostling conviction (“I can never say no to anyone but you”) and the shameful mantra, “I will never be clean again.”
In all the torment and turbulence of Pornography, “A Strange Day” is the closest approximation to life’s beauty. It’s a carefree, melodic reverie under the shadow of apocalypse (“And I laugh as I drift in the wind”). I sometimes think I could live in this song forever.
Even in this roaming descent of an album, there’s something magnificently haunting about the penultimate “Cold.” With the repletion of lines “Your name / Like ice into my heart,” it makes me wonder whether any wounds ever really heal.
The album concludes with cacophony in title track “Pornography.” With discordant arrangements, unintelligible sampling, and eddying vocals, it’s a terror-inspiring song that David Lynch could build an entire world around. But despite the thunderous chaos it creates, Smith chooses not to relinquish to the vortex. Seemingly unraveling, lost in self and time, he breaks through with glimmering hope for personal solace, "I must fight this sickness / Find a cure..." This is the only time in the band’s catalogue that they use this unequaled four-letter word.
Pornography closes the early ‘80s Cure trilogy, a heavyweight opus following in swift succession after Seventeen Seconds and Faith. But it also commences the vaunted career trilogy preceding Disintegration (1989) and Bloodflowers (2000), a grouping of albums celebrated by Smith himself. Thirty-five years after its making, Pornography is essential to The Cure and their fans alike—really to anyone searching for a way through.