The idea of pornography is one that is abhorrent for some, and titillating for others. Still others exhibit muddled feelings about it, grudgingly acknowledging its ability to arouse while at the same time harboring shame over the arousal.
The Cure’s Robert Smith gave the “Pornography” title to his dour 1982 masterwork in order give a recreated feeling to the notion of pornography. Typically, pornography is shocking to the senses; even those who like it are jolted from their mundane reveries into a violent, vulgar world. Of course, this is WHY they like it – it proffers a blunt antidote to bland reality. And the very properties of violence and vulgarity are also the reasons it repels others.
Smith’s conceptual experiment in “didactic diction” was a success. By taking a word laden with overtly "perverse" sexual associations and audaciously affixing it to an assemblage of tunes that, surface-wise, anyway, have very little to do with the original concept, he transformed the word’s meaning, or at least imbued it with daringly new dimensions. Whereas before the word “pornography” had a connotative atmosphere of disturbingly graphic eros, now it took on an aura of existential terror.
“Pornography” The Cure album positively drips with dreariness. And yet, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole it as JUST an exercise in eerie pathos. Otherworldly, mercurially transcendent, harrowing spirituality... these words and phrases encapsulate the complex compelling nature of the album, because it is so much more than just the ponderously murky, suicide-inducing effort it's often made out to be. It clashes with nuanced contradictions... it is at once sparse and dense, clamoring and quiet. It gives rise to the paradoxical idea of poetic cacophony. Discordance never sounded so sublime.
To be sure, “Pornography” might have veered recklessly into the terrain of overwrought kitsch, like much gothic output of the 80s. But instead Robert Smith was able to reign in the histrionics and craft a remarkably mature post-punk classic. “Pornography” is frequently cited as the paradigmatic album of 80s goth, and indeed, no other album of that genre can hope to measure up to its gorgeously grandiose gloom.
The album itself is quite compact, with a total of 8 songs clocking in at around 30 minutes. Its brevity lends it its gravity. All of the songs are imperative here in order to sculpt a cohesiveness and give the album a thematic seamlessness, but for me, six are absolute stunners, while two (Short Term Effect and Cold) are merely "very good." So I will touch on those six, keeping in mind, nonetheless, the necessary nature of the others.
One Hundred Years - An opener of invigorating ferocity. Its militant fervor is matched with lyrics about the nihilistic futility of combat and of life in general. The opening line, "It doesn't matter if we all die," is jarring for its almost beatific negation of existence.
Hanging Garden – The tribal menace of this animal-themed song invokes a primitive sensibility. It was the lead single for "Pornography" and gave early Cure fans a terrorizing taste of the more belligerent side of the band, which had theretofore exuded a calm solemnity, but never such bestial brooding.
Siamese Twins – With its death-march beat, Siamese Twins lyrically mirrors this doom-infused rhythm, exploring the topic of loveless sex with a prostitute which results in a strangely zombified state. “Is it always like this?” is the depressively wailed refrain that haunts long after the song has ceased.
Figurehead - The centerpiece of “Pornography,” and the best “dark” song in The Cure’s catalogue. Figurehead is a baroquely morose opera whose startlingly surrealistic lyrics summon repressed guilt that gnaws like "spiders inside" and that creepily calls forth "the dust of a vision of hell." Figurehead sounds like it was recorded in a dungeon before time began.
Strange Day - This song is seductively mystical with its lushly dark tones and apocalyptic lyrics. Here, Smith revels in the "eye/blind" motif, seeming to suggest that slipping away into oblivion can be an almost lucidly blissful experience.
Pornography - A perfectly trippy and creepy coda. The album's architecture builds from exhilirating bellicosity (100 Years), to bleak tirades (Short Term Effect through Figurehead) to sullen metaphysics (Strange Day and Cold) to a final foray into aggressive avant garde aesthetics. The song is one part actual sonics and one part manic flurry of TV sounds... apparently a televised debate about pornography, but the voices are reversed for added freaky effect. Here, as elsewhere, deteriorating mental states is the central lyrical topic, explored through viciously bitter vocals and driven home by a horror movie synth line and insane asylum drums. The song radiates a truly terrifying vibe of psychosis, as the singer has clearly disintegrated into lunacy.
Sexual vice is what most people think of when they hear the word "pornography," but with his 1983 album, Robert Smith effectively metamorphosed the meaning of the word, digging out its nuances and steeping it in an aura of metaphysical torment. "Pornography" captures the sinister eloquence of a controversial concept and in so doing gives us some of the best and bleakest music of the 1980s.