Looking at old photographs is usually a happy occasion, reminding people of great memories and good times. Context is everything, however, and photos can sting if the person in the picture and the person viewing the picture are no longer part of each other’s big picture. That’s the set-up for The Cure’s “Pictures Of You,” an epic rendering of lost love and limitless regret.
By 1989, Cure lead singer and songwriter Robert Smith was a bit weary of his band’s gradual movement toward the pop charts away from their moody early work. He felt he needed to create something lasting, a coherent album-length artistic statement. So he slowed down the tempos, turned up the torment, and wrote the songs that would make up Disintegration, the band’s melancholy masterwork which contained “Pictures Of You.”
Smith explained his motivations for the album in a 1989 interview. “With Disintegration, I wanted to see if The Cure was still able to make a record which had a real substance and if we were able to express and share such deep feelings,” he said. “The kind of things you feel the first time somebody kisses you violently on the mouth. It’s this kind of intensity, when you’re young, that you must never forget with age. Never…”
That kind of intensity is suggested by the music of “Pictures Of You,” as Smith and fellow guitarist Porl Thompson weave in and out of each other’s lines in mesmerizing fashion while keyboardist Roger O’Donnell props them both up with stirring chord changes. The music, combined with Smith’s impassioned vocal, gives the effect of him desperately dashing to stop his lover from getting on a plane and leaving for good, only, unlike the movies, the plane leaves before he gets there.
Smith sets the tone immediately with a verse that suggests an obsession with the pictures of his former love: “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/That I almost believe that they’re real/I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.” Those pictures rocket the narrator into the past and a world full of falling skies, dying hearts, and screaming lovers. Extreme emotions sometimes call for extreme descriptions.
There is clearly some admiration on his part toward the girl for conquering her demons (“And you finally found all your courage/To let it all go.”) Yet her freedom also came at his expense, and at song’s end, Smith’s vocal quivers with emotion no longer restrained as he sums up the narrator’s pain: “There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more/Than to feel you deep in my heart/There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more/Than to never feel the breaking apart/All my pictures of you.”
You get the feeling that the narrator will be trying to piece those pictures back together for the rest of his weary existence. The Cure and Robert Smith at their peak captured immense, intense anguish better than anybody, and “Pictures Of You” is the ultimate manifestation of that ability.