Monday, October 6, 2008

Nothing Left But Faith by Alison Ross (CD Review)

Faith is one of those Cure albums that took years to completely grow on me. Granted, it’s not that inaccessible, but it seems I was incapable of grasping its full cosmic glory until my musical tastes matured.

Faith has now supplanted The Head on the Door as my favorite Cure album. For a while there it was in my top three, but it recently soared to the pinnacle owing to having witnessed the coveted “Full Faith Encore” in Charlotte, North Carolina on the Cure’s 4Tour.

But back in the mid-80s, when I first discovered the Cure and feverishly bought up all their albums, Faith was one of those albums which I thought quaint, but in no way artistically pioneering or emotionally numbing. Nowadays, I find its glacial minimalism mesmerizing, and feel that it is an album that has deeply impacted popular music in both nuanced and obvious ways. Perhaps only by glancing in the rearview mirror are we able to concede something like this, however; it has been 25 years since the release of Faith, a considerable enough expanse of time to be able to discern an album’s cultural influence.

Faith, in a sense, could be considered a concept album. It focuses on the motif of faith as both a religious and personal construct. Of course, some songs seem to veer from this theme, but I suppose in another way all the songs could be considered to overtly or covertly touch on it.

The eight songs on Faith are bookended very nicely by the haunting dirge, “The Holy Hour” and the more contemplative “Faith.” “The Holy Hour” is perhaps one of the grimmer songs the Cure have done musically, although lyrically it is not so much grim as it is darkly introspective. Here, Robert muses about his agnostic leanings - he attends a church service in order to explore his capacity for religious belief, and finds out by the end that he is only able to question such belief. Indeed, the church environment ends up being a suffocating mileu for him.

Aside from exploring interesting themes, the lyrics present an interesting structure - each verse is syntactically parallel to the previous, yet also builds to a climax in which he declares his inabilty to harbor religious conviction:

i kneel and wait in silence
as one by one the people slip away
into the night
the quiet and empty bodies
kiss the ground before they pray
kiss the ground
and slip away...

i sit and listen dreamlessly
a promise of salvation makes me stay
then look at your face
and feel my heart pushed in
as all around the children play
the games they tired of yesterday
they play

i stand and hear my voice
cry out
a wordless scream at ancient power
it breaks against stone
i softly leave you crying...

i cannot hold what you devour
the sacrifice of penance
in the holy hour

These lyrics fiercely resonate with me and my ideology about the near-futility of religion. And the music lures me into a transcendent trance. Robert Smith had not fully developed his voice yet during the Faith recordings, and yet his ghostly vocals hold a strange sway; their power lies in their eerie expressiveness. The music itself is so gorgeously wrought it sounds like it emanates from some otherwordly cathedral.

Faith the song is actually one of my least favorites on the album, although I do love to see it performed live. I don’t find the song as riveting as some do, although I do of course appreciate its bleak beauty. It is a fitting ending to a stunningly subtle album, and it elaborates on the ideas first touched on in the Holy Hour, asserting that there is nothing left but faith - not a corrosive faith in supernatural deities, of course, but a more buoyant faith in humanity. The song nicely enfolds the emotions of anger and angst, and even wonder and joy at being alive.

Primary is the second song on Faith and is the most upbeat number on an album otherwise overcast with somber skies. This is not to suggest that it is a happy song, per se, but it is vigorously driven by two chugging bass guitars that purely embody the post-punk ethos. Thematically the song seems to be a topic that Robert Smith forever obsesses over - the inevitable decay of youth as we move through life.

Other Voices, the third track, is sublime for its echoing vocal effects which make it sound as though it were recorded in a cave, and a bassline that betrays a vaguely funky beat.

The poetic and dreamy All Cats are Grey and the deliciously gloomy and ever-so-slightly cheesy Funeral Party further imbue the album with grey colors and a austere impessonistic sense.

Doubt is the song which many profess to be the weakest on the album, and somewhat destabilizing of the album’s morose mood , with its more frenzied punkish aesthetic. But I have really grown to love Doubt and feel it’s an essential piece to move the album foward. Its vitriol offers odd respite in such a doom-laden atmosphere; sometimes melancholy is too muted an emotion and we need the exuberance of anger to help us focus our energies.

Drowning Man, the second to last song, is for many the centerpiece of Faith, and the glum glue that holds the whole thing together. The song, of course, was inspired by the literary fantasty Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake. In part of the story, the character of Fuschia ends up accidentally drowning herself owing to heartbreak. The song covers this aspect of the story. Musically it epitmoizes the icy sting of post-punk and captivates the senses with its drum pad and “clap trap” effects. And it truly captures the sense of being swept away in a flood.

Faith comes from a haunted solipsitic place. Every Cure album abounds in merits, but Faith seems to be the one that is the most obsession-inducing. It seduces you into its tormented world and try as you might, you cannot escape. You are lured back time and time again into its dark poetic soundscape.

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