When people talk about The Cure’s darkest and most haunting albums, the conversation can often seem redundant. After all, we’re talking about a band that mastered the art of capturing gloom on tape practically from the start, more than four decades ago. That, and the conversation inevitably settles on 1982’s Pornography and 1989’s Disintegration, and understandably so. Both albums are juggernauts, the former an LSD-fueled descent into pure nihilism and the latter an elegiac masterpiece driven by Robert Smith’s sense of mortality (and more drugs).
Disintegration’s status as the pinnacle of The Cure’s discography is basically unassailable at this point, so let’s turn instead to Pornography. As much as I love (or perhaps, more accurately, respect) that particular album, its unremitting bleakness can be daunting, and at worst, monotonous. (Pornography begins with Smith intoning “It doesn’t matter if we all die” and it’s downhill from there, a trip through a personal hell of self-loathing and self-destruction.)
Released in 1981, Faith rarely matches Pornography’s free-fall into the abyss for intensity. But what it lacks in misanthropic abandon, it more than makes up in haunting reflections on spirituality, grief, and death. Given the order in which the two albums were released, Faith feels like an attempt by Smith et al. to grieve the last, flickering vestiges of hope before ultimately shrugging their shoulders at the futility of it all, popping some acid, and embracing the despair for Pornography.
Pornography might get all the acclaim — it appears on lists of the darkest albums of all time and is considered a gothic rock cornerstone — but I find the grief undergirding Faith’s eight songs to be far more affecting than Pornogaphy’s raging despair. And it’s this same grief that allows Faith to contain some of The Cure’s most poignant and personal songs.
Faith begins with the creepy, serpentine bassline of “The Holy Hour,” which finds Robert Smith sitting in a church contemplating faith and his own lack of it (“I sit and listen dreamlessly/A promise of salvation makes me stay”). Over the years, Smith has expressed a mixture of antipathy, indifference, and longing when it comes to spiritual matters. Those conflicting impulses manifest in the final verse of “The Holy Hour,” where he offers “a wordless scream at ancient power” that simply “breaks against stone.” The song ends with Smith leaving his companion in tears, sadly acknowledging that he “cannot hold what you devour” (an interesting communion reference) nor can he make “the sacrifice of penance in the holy hour.”
“The Holy Hour” wouldn’t be the only Cure song to explore irreligious sentiments (see also Bloodflowers’ “Where the Birds Always Sing”), but it’s arguably the most powerful and urgent of the batch. And its renunciation echoes throughout Faith’s remaining songs, with Smith searching for something to believe in even as he continually feels time and death close in around him.
Occasionally, he opts to rage against the dying of the light, as it were, or numb himself to the hopelessness — though it always ends up leaking through, anyway. “Primary” was the album’s first single and almost cracked the top 40 on the UK Singles Chart. With its racing, heavily flanged bass line and driving beat, it’s easy to see why British teens danced to the tune, even though they were actually grooving to a lament for aging and the loss of innocence (“The further we go and older we grow/The more we know, the less we show”).
Later in the album, “Doubt” is a wild, thrashing number that conveys Smith’s “anger and frustration at the pointlessness of everything” — which certainly explains the opening lyrics: “Stop my flight to fight and die/And take a stand to change my life/So savage with red desperation.” The song seems like a misogynistic fever dream (“Tear at flesh and rip at skin… I have to break you”) until you realize he’s more than likely singing about killing his own doubts, only to end up acknowledging that any such efforts are in vain (“I stop and kneel beside you/Drained of everything but pain”).
Smith has previously admitted to not liking “Doubt”; the song’s violent, angry imagery does, indeed, feel out of place on Faith and seems more like a test run for Pornography. More effective is the album’s third track, “Other Voices.” Here, Smith tries losing himself in sensual pleasures (“You brush past my skin, as soft as fur/Taking hold, I taste your scent”) only to find little peace and quiet in such pursuits (“And all the other voices said/Change your mind, you’re always wrong”).
Musically, “Other Voices” features a rolling drumbeat by Lol Tolhurst that I find impossible to get out of my head as well as a classic Simon Gallup bassline. Conversely, Smith’s guitar is spectral, his chiming notes untethered and drifting along the song’s periphery, their barely there-ness enhancing the song’s sense of isolation.
(My experience of “Other Voices” is definitely colored by its music video, which I watched countless times back in high school on a battered VHS copy of Staring at the Sea. The band is barely visible throughout the video, their pale white skin — and dabs of lipstick and mascara — blending into a smoke-filled room like ghosts. Which only adds to the song’s already eerie sense.)
Faith’s best and strongest songs, however, are those in which Robert Smith settles down a bit and decides to confront and embrace his existential dilemma with a sense of dignity and solemnity. The resulting music is some of the most beautiful and affecting in the band’s oeuvre.
“The Funeral Party” is The Cure at their most somber, with surreal-yet-moving lyrics inspired by the death of Smith’s grandparents: “Two pale figures ache in silence/Timeless in the quiet ground/Side by side in age and sadness.” The song is also Faith’s most synth-heavy number, and its wintry atmospherics move in a stately, dignified manner as befitting a song mourning the deaths of loved ones.
The lyrics and synth arrangements combine to make “The Funeral Party” one of The Cure’s most nakedly personal songs ever, an honest reflection of the band’s collective grief. All three of The Cure’s members lost loved ones around the time they began recording Faith. As such, lyrics like “Memories of children’s dreams/Lie lifeless, fading lifeless/Hand in hand with fear and shadows” contain absolutely zero goth-y melodramatics, but rather, ring with true loss and sorrow. (Smith has previously mentioned “The Funeral Party” as a song that can easily reduce him to tears if he’s not careful because of the painful memories that it conjures up for him.)
The same holds true for “All Cats Are Grey,” which directly precedes “The Funeral Party.” It’s my favorite song on Faith, and one of my favorite Cure songs of all time. With sparse lyrics inspired by both Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels (which also inspired “The Drowning Man”) and the death of Lol Tolhurst’s mother, I contend that “All Cats Are Grey” might be The Cure’s darkest, most sorrowful song, period.
The song’s instrumentation — echoing drums, muted bass, weepy synths, funereal piano notes — creates a majestically moody backdrop that’s perfectly suited for such lyrics as “No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes/And no flags wave me home” and “In the death cell, a single note rings on and on and on.” Smith’s voice has rarely sounded so forlorn, and the song creates an atmosphere of true loneliness and solitude that’s all the more affecting for its restraint.
Though it seems trivial, the song’s piano denouement only lasts for three measures rather than four, which ends “All Cats Are Grey” on an abrupt note of uncertainty. Or maybe the band just couldn’t bring themselves to play that last measure. In either case, the awkward ending subtly, yet powerfully enhances the song’s effect.
(I still remember where I heard “All Cats Are Grey” for the first time: on the bedroom floor at my parents’ house, where I was staying during summer break. I’d been listening to The Cure for several years by then, and after growing familiar with their more recent albums, I was working my way back through their discography. The whole of Faith left me fascinated, but “All Cats Are Grey” really struck me as something unique and powerful, and filled with a sense of emotion quite unlike anything I’d heard from Robert Smith et al. up until then. Suffice to say, I still feel that way nearly three decades later.)
Finally, there’s the album’s title track, which closes Faith on some semblance of resolution. Building on the same somber atmospherics as “All Cats Are Grey,” “Faith” comes off as a both a continuation of “The Holy Hour”’s rejection of religious faith (“No one lifts their hands/No one lifts their eyes/Justified with empty words/The party just gets better and better”) and a lament in its own right (“If only we could stay/Please say the right words/We cry like the stone white clown/And stand, lost forever in a happy crowd”).
But while the song does end on a certain note of resolution — “I went away alone/With nothing left but faith” — Smith’s words feel less triumphant and more tremulous. This becomes especially true as the song winds down with Smith repeating the phrase like an increasingly desperate mantra, as if he’s trying to convince himself. By the song’s end, though, his voice is just a ghostly wisp, an echo of its former self that’s barely able to withstand Tolhurst’s skeletal beat.
That ambiguity, however, gives the song its haunting power — and I’m not alone in my estimation. A 2016 Rolling Stone readers’ poll included “Faith” as one of The Cure’s best songs, but more importantly, Smith has listed it as one of his favorite Cure songs: “I don’t think I’ll ever write a song that’ll ever move me as much as ‘Faith,’ that’ll change my life as much as that song did, or encapsulates a period of my life as well as that one does.”
(One of the most powerful live performances I’ve ever heard from The Cure is a performance of “Faith” that was recorded in Rome on June 4, 1989 after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Dedicated to those who died earlier in the day, the song stretches on for nearly fifteen minutes, during which Robert Smith monologues about totalitarianism and tyranny and lets loose a ragged howl filled with anger and frustration.)
Faith contains sentiments with which I certainly don’t agree, regardless of how artfully or uniquely stated they might be: specifically, Robert Smith’s ultimate rejection of religion in “The Holy Hour.” That song alone would have rendered Faith as anathema in the church circles of my youth, never mind the band’s lipstick-smeared image.
But when I listen to Faith, I’m reminded of an explanation that Wovenhand’s David Eugene Edwards once gave concerning why he found darker, angrier music so appealing:
I’ve never liked Christian music outside of the Church, like Christian rock music or contemporary Christian music like Amy Grant. I agree with what they’re singing about but I don’t care if they sing about it or not. The way they sing about it… does not affect me at all. It doesn’t make me want to worship God or follow after God. I think God used other music, more aggressive, kind of darker music to stir up my soul. I guess I grew up around a lot of sad things so it was very easy and comfortable… for it to be part of my life. And that’s what attracted me probably to music like Joy Division and The Birthday Party or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Music that people would say, “Oh, this is depressing music, dark music.” What I find beautiful in the music that I was attracted to was people were being very honest. I felt like Ian Curtis was being very honest with me when he was singing to me. I felt like Bon Scott from AC/DC was being very honest with me when he sang to me. And even though it was stuff I did not agree with, I thought it was very sincere.
In a 2000 interview with Uncut, Smith described his mindset going into Faith:
I was 21 but I felt really old. I actually felt older than I do now. I had absolutely no hope for the future. I felt life was pointless. I had no faith in anything. I just didn’t see there was much point in continuing with life.
In the next two years, I genuinely felt that I wasn’t going to be alive for much longer. I tried particularly hard to make sure I wasn’t.
Listening to these eight songs borne out of that tumultuous time, I have no doubt that Robert Smith was being very honest and sincere with me concerning his own doubts and struggles. Indeed, I daresay that he’s more honest on Faith in that regard than on almost any other Cure album.
The Cure have long been typified by a certain sense of artifice and theatricality, from their makeup, fashion sense, and music videos to Smith’s overwrought lyrics and musical flourishes — not to mention the ways in which they’ve reinvented themselves over the decades. Of course, that very same theatricality is one of the things that makes The Cure so unique and special, though even Robert Smith has admitted that people sometimes get the wrong idea of his emotional state from his band’s gloomy music.
That’s definitely not the case here, however. Though unmistakably a Cure album, Faith contains no artifice, and there’s certainly no mistaking Smith’s emotional state. Even at its most skeptical (e.g, “The Holy Hour”) and surreal (e.g., “The Funeral Party”), Faith nevertheless feels deeply sincere and honest because of the very real — and deeply human — grief, sorrow, and anguish found at its core.