Pornography is the fourth album released by the Cure. By this time, fans of the Cure had noticed their sound was becoming darker with each album, and this album pushed in that direction to its limit.
Robert Smith admitted the album was intended to be virtually unlistenable, a sort of final scream before the members of the Cure went their separate ways. This certainly is evident to any listener as the album is filled with cold, mournful, epic songs that form a rather vividly disturbing narrative of isolation, pain and delusionary psychosis.
Yet it is because of its success at capturing these emotions that it is ranked by many fans as one of the all time great Cure records. Indeed, the skill and musicianship of the band had reached new peaks. Whilst predecessor Faith contained atmospheric dirges that certainly dripped with a heavy sense of despair, the songs were somewhat minimalist in composition.
This changed with Pornography. Partly due to the influence of new co-producer, Phil Thornalley (known for his work with the Psychedelic Furs), and almost certainly because of Robert Smith’s uncompromising vision, the album features much more emphasis on guitar overdubs, waves of distortion, heavy drum treatments, haunting incidental background soundscapes and dementia-inducing tape loops.
The Cure — Pornography: Track-by-track review
1. “One Hundred Years”
The album kicks off with one of the most beautifully desperate and desolate songs the Cure had written to that point.
Whiplash electro-beat drums meet with a vicious and dark guitar line perfectly washing into the opening lyrics:
It doesn’t matter if we all die
Indeed, the first minute of this song reveals the nature of the entire album. Smiths’ voice is soaring and confident, desperate and breaking as it exposes stark imagery of black cars, fruitless prayer and “a little black haired girl, waiting for Saturday, the death of her father pushing her, pushing her into the mirror.”
By the time Robert expels the final words “it feels like a hundred years” over straining, repetitive yelps from his guitar, the tone is well and truly set.
2. “A Short Term Effect”
By the start of “A Short Term Effect” the prominent place of the drums in the mix becomes evident, driving the song along at an uneasy and unrelenting canter. While this song is not one of the stronger on the album, it is notable for using what sounds like a stretched tape loop as a major part of its structure along with a more melodic vocal arrangement, in what could be almost recognized as a conventional chorus section.
The echo effect on the vocals does seem a little dated now (and perhaps a little simplistic) but the subject matter and execution of the lyrics is still a well-constructed array of spiraling depression and emotional disintegration.
3. “The Hanging Garden”
“The Hanging Garden”, somewhat laughably, was the single lifted off the album. It is no surprise it was the only one. There truly is no song here that any well adjusted middle of the road radio station would play in a hundred years.
I can imagine a somewhat confounded record company exec choosing this song solely because it is the only track under five minutes that follows a verse, verse, chorus formula. The song, a staple classic in many fans’ eyes, is a short slab of gothic pop in much the same vein as “Charlotte Sometimes” — tight, dense and filled with anxiety.
4. “Siamese Twins”
The tempo drops, the bass and guitar are given much more room to breathe their spell, and the keyboards are used sparingly as sound effects rather than joining in the melody. This track would have fit easily amongst the ones on Faith but in a way it carries the only real respite from the continued onslaught of the other songs.
While still as dark as its bedfellows elsewhere on the album, it is much more evenly paced and direct. The guitar follows the bass almost note for note and there is a lack of progression throughout the track. However, that is the point, and is the reason it fits perfectly at this point on the album; amongst epic, tortured pieces, “Siamese Twins” stands out because it lacks the dressing and frills and delivers a somber moment amongst the noise and paranoia.
5. “The Figurehead”
“The Figurehead” returns the listener to a slowly-evolving knot of tension as the bass moves to the fore and Robert Smith sways sharp guitar lines over a verse that never quite ends, but just moves from visions of dust-covered figurines to insomniac pleas.
Somewhat stripped-back like the preceding song, it differs in its subtle shifting and gradual musical progression from beginning to end. Robert Smith wailing “I will never be clean again” brings about a nervewracking final stanza as the song drops away to leave a drum beat as heartless and mechanical as any I’ve heard.
6. “A Strange Day”
A buzzing keyboard bass line emerges from silence as this song treads a slightly differing path to others on the album. Just for a moment the overpowering tone of hopelessness is replaced with a distinct tone of defiance. It is subtle but evident in the feel of the song and the delivery of the lyrics during the verses.
It doesn’t last long; by the time Smith reaches the chorus and proclaims
And the sea grows
I close my eyes
Move slowly through drowning waves
Going away on a strange day
Nihilism has returned to his voice and all seems painted in defeat again.
“Cold” is a powerful and emphatic song — impossibly deep, rumbling bass sounds join a striking drum line, as deadly as the whip from a scorpion’s tail. The keyboards soar into a refrain, a call to arms building and building, and then Smith, like a man in the throes of exorcism, releases words that are indeed cold, emotionless, his delivery apathetic, sublime.
The album closes with the title track. A backmasked tape plays slowly, drums drift in, more backing tapes, crowd noises, perhaps from a war movie, pitch shifted voices only just audible underneath it all, distant and dissolute guitar rings out, starts again and stops seemingly randomly throughout the song refusing to fall into line with the beat.
Robert’s voice sounds muted, far away, still extolling fragments of surrealism before turning to plainly-developed violent intentions. If possible, this track takes us even deeper into despair than the others; certainly the lyrics are not as obscured by metaphor, and are all the more chilling for it. Yet the song is musically the most experimental of the album. Robert ends the journey through this classic album yelling over and over:
I must fight this sickness
Find a cure
9. “Break” [demo]
This song kicks off the bonus CD found in the deluxe version of Pornography. A home-recorded demo that sounds like, well, a home demo recording. The levels are messed, the bass fuzzes out on the low end and the guitar is tinny. Instrumental and over a little too soon.
10. “Demise” [demo]
Another instrumental, the recording is better but again it is over before you really start to fall for its spell. Probably a stronger track than the opener, it has more texture, and the guitar works well, but there is nothing here to really invest in as a listener.
11. “Temptation” [demo]
Like the other demos of songs that never made the actual album this is promising yet unfulfilling. I can’t help but think, if finished it could have been something other than a curiosity. Feels like it reaches half way then abruptly stops. This really is the nature of demo recordings though.
12. “Figurehead” [demo]
The first of the bonus tracks that is a demo of a song actually on the album. Yes, it is slightly different but not a lot — no real production polishing, no effects, just a straight play of the album version with a moment of variance in the vocal delivery in the mid section.
13. “Hanging Garden” [demo]
An ace in the pack. This version is remarkably different from the album version, almost another song entirely. The lyrics are more involved, the phrasing is changed, and as a result the mood shifts into a new direction. This is where demos become interesting, revealing a new beast.
14. “One Hundred Years” [demo]
This studio demo version has some marked differences from the album version. The pounding drums of the original are replaced with a tinny electro beat sounding very much like those used in current glitch electronica (or almost anyone from the famed Warp Records label). Heavy flange on the keyboards add a nice effect and the bass seems to have a much crisper texture.
15. “Airl1ock: Soundtrack”
Heavy, experimental soundtrack music. Random notes on a piano, flange effects sliding in and out, throat singing, a poorly played flute. Slowly it seems to delve deeper into a dark place.
The thing with experimental music is that while some people will love it, others will suggest you need to keep experimenting until you can make music. I’m inclined to favor experimental music but this song is just way too long, clocking in at 13 minutes.
16. “Cold” [live]
Bootleg territory here. A truly bad recording of a live performance that does little justice to the song or band. You can hear all the instruments but each of them sound like they are being played behind a brick wall.
17. “A Strange Day” [live]
Another bootleg live track. Bass frequencies are totally lost — you can even hear moments of crowd chatter way down in this mix. It might have sounded good if you were there but now it sounds like you’re listening to a tin can.
18. “Pornography” [live]
Here is a bootleg live track that transcends the obvious flaws of bootleg recordings. Somehow the drums have more feeling, Roberts’guitar playing sounds great and adds a new dimension to the album version. Can still hear the crowd in parts and Roberts’ voice is a bit shrill but this is a worthwhile listen.
19. “All Mine” [live]
This track was totally new to me and as such is of more interest that the other live versions found on the bonus disc. The recording quality is still poor but underneath there is a song of some note — slow and breathless, engaging and brooding. Then it just stops, literally, seemingly mid-song and you’re left without reward.
20. “A Short Term Effect” [live]
If you are expecting anything more than a poor recording of a straight live version of the song, then look elsewhere. Simply put, I don’t find any value in this album’s live bonus tracks; they lack any flow between songs that might make the listener feel as though they are there, sounding more like six songs taken from six different shows.
21. “Siamese Twins” [live]
The sixth and final live recording on this disc really follows along the same unnecessary path. Strictly of interest only to those that must hear every single version of every Cure song ever recorded.
22. “Temptation Two” [demo]
Closing track for the extended version of this album, and it is a good ending note. An evolution of the track by the same name found earlier on the disc. Vocals have been added and feature Robert squealing, whispering and muttering over the driving bass riffs and minimal chord strums.
Pornography by The Cure
“One Hundred Years”
“A Short Term Effect”
“The Hanging Garden”
“A Strange Day”
“Hanging Garden” [demo]
“One Hundred Years” [demo]
“A Strange Day” [live]
“All Mine” [live]
“A Short Term Effect” [live]
“Siamese Twins” [live]
“Temptation Two” [demo]