35 Years Ago: The Cure Go for Goth Glory With Their Third Album, ‘Faith’
If 1982’s Pornography was the peak of the Cure’s goth period, then its predecessor, Faith, was the gloriously gloomy mist near the peak that you have to pass to reach the top. Even the album cover is an image of an old, fog-enshrouded English estate and each of the eight songs are similarly swathed in an expertly textured haze.
Of course, the Cure emerged in 1979 at the heart of the post-punk era, delivering concise, angular and relatively speedy cuts like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” that matched Robert Smith’s anomie with classic pop hooks. But by their second album, 1980’s Seventeen Seconds, the Cure began crafting music to match the moodiness of their lyrics.
Though their first few albums never gained much mainstream traction even in their native England, the Cure quickly achieved cult status. The suicide of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (England’s post-punk/proto-goth icon) was only a few months in the past when Smith, bassist Simon Gallup and drummer Lol Tolhurst gathered to record their third album. In fact, Smith often dedicated early live versions of “Primary” (the only single from Faith) to Curtis. And when the Cure solidified their own standing as masters of modernist melancholy by following up the rather gothy Seventeen Seconds with something even more atmospheric and angst-riddled. It was like sending out a signal to all those Lost Boys and Girls that stage-whispered, “Commiserate with us.”
Even though they may not have been striving for it (and either despite or because of their relative lack of commercial success to that point), the Cure were becoming new poster boys for legions of disaffected, anorak-wearing British youth. And speaking of youth, it ought to be remembered that Smith was just 21 years old when the Cure recorded Faith, and the 1981 album is a compellingly murky account of his desperate search to find his place in the world.
On “Primary,” Smith sings, “the further we go and older we grow / the more we know, the less we show” and if that isn’t evocative of the struggle between a freshly minted grown-up and his inner adolescent, what is? But the track also reveals the Cure as masters of sonic sleight-of-hand. Despite the seemingly broad spectrum of sounds on the track, the only instruments are drums and two basses. To fill out the void of guitars or synths, the band employed devices like the liberal use of flanger for the “jet ascent and descent” effect that would become a Cure trademark.
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But the rumbling “Primary” and snarling “Doubt” (which comes off as downright punky) are the only uptempo tunes on Faith. This album hasn’t become a goth touchstone because of a series of speedy tunes. From the suitably submerged-sounding “The Drowning Man” to the almost stately, synth-laden “The Funeral Party,” the album is dominated by heady, hypnotic tunes full of head-swirling textures that move to a dramatic, unhurried pulse. But Smith, Gallup and Tolhurst had already become so skilled at making their moodiness resonate, that even tunes with depressing titles like those last two turn out to be a lot more accessible than you might expect. That’s an important part of the band’s recipe for success: making melancholia feel like fun. And nobody could do it like the Cure.
Even though Faith falls smack in the middle of the Cure’s classic goth trilogy, it lays undeniable claim to its own distinct sonic signature. One of the most overt examples is the dominance of bass. In addition to the aforementioned low-end fest of “Primary,” there’s no shortage of on “Other Voices,” “The Holy Hour” and the title track, where bass is more or less the lead instrument despite the presence of guitar and keyboards. It makes for a weighty throb that gives the album ballast no matter how minimal or gauzy the arrangements may get.
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A year after they released Faith with moderate success, the Cure would go all in on goth by unleashing 1982’s Pornography, one of the most emotionally unsettling and compelling cries for help in rock history. And after that, Smith would manage a stunning stylistic volte-face by heeding his inner pop star and turning out radio-friendly tunes like “The Love Cats” and “Let’s Go to Bed.” In the process, Smith became the quirky-but-cuddly, mop-haired character and the band eventually achieved multi-platinum status and international acclaim.
But what becomes apparent somewhere within the 37 minutes it takes to get from the start to finish of Faith, is that long before they conquered the world, the Cure found goth glory that had rarely been seen outside of the Bauhaus catalog before or since.