You Gotta Have Faith: The Cure’s Third Album, 40 Years On

It wasn’t The Cure’s first great album, but was it the first great ‘Cure album’? Ben Hewitt braves one of Robert Smith and co’s darkest nights of the soul

When Robert Smith was a boy, his mum dragged him from Crawley all the way to the Vatican so he could see the Pope. “There was a Mass, and he was carried in on a chair,” he told The Face. “I grabbed his hand.” By 1981, though, the surly, disillusioned, 21-year-old Smith couldn’t find much of anything to hold on to, no matter how hard he tried. Although he’d long decided Catholicism wasn’t for him, he felt so spiritually moribund that he started skulking around Crawley’s churches. Notebook in hand, he’d sit in the pews and stare at the parishioners in fascination, bewilderment, even jealousy. Unlike him, they had something to believe in. “I’d think about death and I’d look at the people in the church and I knew they were there above all because they wanted eternity,” he’d say. “I realised I had no faith at all, and I was scared.”

Faith, the torrid album that spiralled out of those ecclesiastical visits, was not a record to replenish anyone’s belief. It was a hellish slog to make, the kind of thorny process that would test the patience of a saint. (Not that The Cure were living like saints: the myriad problems they faced were compounded, Smith later admitted, by heavy cocaine use.) Once it was finished, they weren’t any happier; as Smith told Uncut in 2000, after recording his final vocals he only felt “bitter” that it hadn’t turned out how he’d wanted. He wasn’t the only one who considered their third album a disappointment. “Hollow, shallow, pretentious, meaningless, self-important and bereft of any real heart or soul,” snarked Record Mirror.

Time has been kinder to Faith since then, as has Smith: in 1989, he told a fanzine it was one of his favourite Cure records. But it still doesn’t always seem to get its full due. Conventional wisdom has it as the second part of a desolate trilogy that starts with 1980’s Seventeen Seconds and culminates with 1982’s Pornography, yet it deserves to be seen as more than a mere step towards the event horizon. I’d argue, in fact, that while it’s by no means The Cure’s first great album, it might be the first great “Cure album”. That’s no knock on what came before: 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys is a taut, twitchy classic. But it also sounds like a completely different band – breathless and restless and spiky in a way The Cure never really would be again – its sore-thumb cover of Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’ proof of their muddled identity. And while the wonderful Seventeen Seconds has more gothic chill thanks to Smith’s transformative stint with Siouxsie And The Banshees, it’s more akin to the first tentative step down a new twilit path, the work of a group groping for the edges while their eyes adjust to the murk.

The same cannot be said of Faith. If Smith had ever fancied establishing a basic version of what Mark E Smith of The Fall might have dubbed the Cure Sound, then this would be its embryonic form: not yet perfect and never permanent, but a devastating starting point. However lousy it was to make, however unhappy the band were at the time, today it resembles a nightmarish vision come fully to pass; a grand monolith of misery; an anthology of harrowing poems carved in funeral-grey tablets of stone. Its raw, bleak guitars, doomy keyboards, sinister bass and spidery percussion are the perfect backdrop for 37 minutes of exquisite existential dread. On Faith, the despair is to die for – on around half the songs, quite literally. “I was 21, but I felt really old,” said Smith. “I had absolutely no hope for the future. I felt life was pointless.”

Which is funny, because the initial demos Smith recorded in his parents’ dining room were pretty upbeat; it was only when he wrote ‘All Cats Are Grey’ and ‘The Funeral Party’ in one miserable night that the mood turned irrevocably black. Still, it’s hard to imagine Faith would have ever stayed positive for long. Keyboardist Matthieu Hartley, who’d grown more estranged from the band throughout 1980, had already seen the depressing writing on the wall. “I realised the group were heading towards suicidal, sombre music,” he said. “The sort of thing that didn’t interest me at all.” He quit before work on the record started.

For the remaining three members, life was about to get more difficult. Drummer Lol Tolhurst’s mother was seriously ill (she passed away shortly after Faith’s release), Smith lost his grandmother, and there was a death in bassist Simon Gallup’s family. Faith’s interrogation of belief was always going to be an intense reckoning; how could it not be, when it was written by a non-believer who was brought up by ardent Roman Catholics, and was later suspended from Catholic school for outspoken views on religion? The personal tragedies, though, cast a morbid shadow over the LP. In his memoir Cured, Tolhurst recalls how he and his singer would stay up until the small hours talking about death, while in 2004 Smith told Rolling Stone that the losses had an immense impact. “The whole band had a family member die,” he said. “That really coloured Faith.”

The studio was no sanctuary, either. As Jeff Apter details in his must-read biography Never Enough, The Cure were encouraged to produce an LP every year for their label, Fiction, yet recording so soon after the gruelling Seventeen Seconds tour was a mistake. Desperate for inspiration, they tried four different studios (including Abbey Road) to little positive effect. Smith complained that the band and crew’s happy, drunken hijinks made it harder for him to record his vocals, and the more tracks they scrapped, the angrier he became with them and producer Mike Hedges. Often, their manager and Fiction founder Chris Parry would be there, too, worrying about how much time, drugs and money the album was eating up.

All that frustration and anguish doesn’t just bleed into the music: it poisons it. Faith’s opening song, ‘The Holy Hour’, sounds diseased, its sickly guitars clammy and feverish, its bass bending and wobbling as if riddled with rickets. And when Smith sings, it’s in an eerie, queasy drone, his voice so smothered by layers of sound you’d swear he’d been buried alive. “I sit and listen dreamlessly/ A promise of salvation makes me stay,” he sings hopelessly, turning those secret nights in church into a lonely sermon where everyone is saved except him. There’s no comfort for Doubting Robert, only petulant fury: “I stand and hear my voice cry out/ A wordless scream at ancient power.” It’s a twisted parody of a religious ritual, a grotesque vision of Mass from an Angela Carter story; even its closing bells don’t jangle sweetly but instead clang with grotty, funereal heaviness, like dank peals ringing out from some netherworld church.

That’s only the start of the spiritual abyss. At first, ‘Primary’ seems sprightly and straightforward: a post punk sprint built around razor-wire riffs and snotty, sneery vocals. But its austere velocity eventually becomes less exhilarating and more of a punishing grind, while Smith disturbingly hints that dying as a child might be better than enduring life’s horrors. “Innocent forever,” he spits, almost enviously. “Sleeping children in their blue soft rooms, still dreaming.” And then there’s the curdled lust of ‘Other Voices’, with its ominous, debauched rumble of slithery bass, dry rattles and Smith’s pit-of-despair cry, as he tries to blot out fetid thoughts with a sexual encounter but just ends up tired and edgy. “I live with desertion and eight million people/ Distant noises of other voices,” he sighs afterwards, so frazzled and empty it could be a tryst narrated by one of TS Eliot’s Hollow Men. Life in The Cure was as grim as it had ever been, but as Faith’s opening unholy trinity showed, it led to an awful sort of heightened acuity, too.

After Faith’s release, Smith would dedicate live performances of ‘Primary’ to Ian Curtis, whose 1980 suicide had greatly unsettled him. As Apter recounts, the link between the two bands was one several reviewers made, too, often unfavourably. “The Cure remain stuck in the hackneyed doom-mongering that should have died with Joy Division,” insisted Record Mirror. NME, meanwhile, mocked their dedication to the “new songwriting category known to experts as Grammar School Angst”. In truth, Faith isn’t all wallowing; the ferocious, cold-steel attack of ‘Doubt’, on which Smith vows to “stop my flight to fight and die/ And take a stand to change my life”, is about raging against the dark, not surrendering to it. But critics still felt smothered. “It is seductive and enjoyable,” conceded Free Voice. “But its equation of despair with profundity is vacuous.”

If that’s all you can hear, though, you’re not listening hard enough. True, Faith is an overwhelmingly sombre album, a dark night of the soul so thick with gloom it almost makes you choke. But it is never rote or one-dimensional. Its suffering comes in many different shades of grey, some of them bleakly beautiful. ‘All Cats Are Grey’ is a thing of shadowy, ethereal wonder, all bone-dry percussion echoing off stone walls and murky, sepulchral synths, while Smith’s voice is as cold and distant as a wraith’s. Its meaning is disputed – many fans claim it’s based on Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Tolhurst says it’s about his mother, Smith only that it describes being trapped in a cave – but it oozes loneliness, a sense of being lost and alone in a damp, dimly lit prison. “No shapes sail on the deep dark lakes/ And no flags wave me home,” he sings mournfully in his underground tomb, where the sound of water dripping from the ceiling is as haunting as the leaky tap in ‘10:15 Saturday Night’.

Then, on the graceful death-waltz of ‘The Funeral Party’, The Cure take a different, more silvery tack. If the doomed caves of ‘All Cats’ could have been lifted from a fantasy novel, then the torment here is earthbound and everyday: a vignette inspired by the deaths of Smith’s grandparents, and soundtracked by a shimmering, elegiac wash of synths. It’s rooted in overwhelming loss – in 1999, Smith told Mondo Sonoro that he couldn’t listen to it if he’d been drinking, else he’d burst into tears – so much so that he’s practically transformed into the living dead himself: watching wordlessly, dancing noiselessly, a third ghost at the wake, drifting through it all on numbed autopilot. Some Cure songs play out like vivid horror stories, their imagery tinged with the otherworldly: spooky forests, flesh-eating spidermen, time-travelling schoolgirls. But ‘The Funeral Party’ is crushing because of its tragic mundanity, the shattering of normal life into a thousand, grief-stricken pieces.

For all that Faith is framed as a forerunner to Pornography, those two songs feel far more like precursors to the glacial splendour of 1989’s Disintegration. Likewise, on ‘The Drowning Man’, The Cure circle the same treacherous depths they’d later brave on ‘The Same Deep Water As You’, another track which slowly runs out of air underneath a flood’s glassy ripples. This time, Smith undoubtedly was inspired by Gormenghast – in itself hardly a novelty, given the number of songs sparked by his bookshelf. Yet none sound as indebted to their source material as ‘The Drowning Man’, with its serpentine guitar that twists in on itself with the same decaying gothic grandeur as Gormenghast Castle, and churns as dangerously as the icy whirlpools that claim one of its inhabitants, Fuchsia Groan. And just like Peake, Smith portrays her fate as a cruel joke, a horrible farce: she’s contemplating jumping from a ledge after learning that her lover, Steerpike, is a manipulative killer, when she’s startled by a knock on her door. “Slips and strikes her soft dark head,” intones Smith. “The water bows, receives her/ And drowns her at its ease.”

In Titus Alone, hundreds of pages before Fuchsia’s death, Peake writes: “Lingering is so very lonely when one lingers all alone.” It’s a wretched mantra that Faith lives by, all the way through to its perfect, poignant title track. Smith insisted it was supposed to offer a glimmer of hope, something that’s hard to hear at first. Its near seven-minute dirge is underpinned by slow, funereal drums and Gallup’s creeping-ivy bass; the downbeat guitar is wary with fatigue, while the reverse reverb on Tolhurst’s snare lets out a wheezy death-rattle. And judging by Smith’s drained, colourless tone and bitter rejoinders, he’s no more convinced by higher power than on ‘The Holy Hour’. But even if religion is one giant cosmic delusion, you still have to find a crack in the dark, your own way to persevere. “I went away alone/ With nothing else but faith,” he chants, reciting the words like an atheist’s prayer.

“I listen to Faith now and don’t think it’s as realised as Seventeen Seconds,” Tolhurst bluntly tells Apter in Never Enough. All the same, to these ears it stands as the most focused, quintessentially Cure-like album they’d made to that point, a LP shrouded in distinctive thick fog, and more coherent and fully-formed than its predecessors. It would be a simplification to say it became a blueprint – heaven knows The Cure are far too restless for that – but it does feel like the germ they’d spend the next decade or so tweaking, evolving, developing, even rejecting: taking to warped extremes on Pornography, making slicker on The Head On The Door, sweetening up on all those tinselly, lovesick singles, expanding into booming, glistening caverns of sound on Disintegration. The Cure’s sound would keep changing, their ideas would continue shifting, and various faces would come and go, yet this album still sounds like them coalescing into the classic version of themselves.

In 2003, 20-odd years after Faith’s release, Smith went on a French TV show to plug a new DVD and ended up holding court about religion. He didn’t have faith in anything he couldn’t see or touch, he said; yes, occasionally he was jealous of those who did believe, but perhaps they were just fooling themselves; and anyway, religion was the root of all human evil, and you didn’t need God to have morality. The audience clapped. “If only everyone was like him!” cheered Eric Cantona. Nothing had changed, it seemed, since he slunk into Crawley’s Friary Church back in 1981. Still, if spiritual eternity was never an option for The Cure, at least they found something everlasting of their own instead. Somehow, after all the trials and tribulations, Faith endures.

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