Prior to hearing "Plainsong" by the group Cure, I mistakenly believed that the only sounds we humans can hear as having meaningful construction must come from another human being. I had listened to music strictly for the lyrics and the verbalized theme or meaning which these projected.
It was 1989 and the Cure's new album Disintegration had just been released. My roommate Amy, had just gotten a copy of the new album and we sat inches from the stereo waiting for the voice of the lead singer, Robert Smith, to envelope us. As the first song, "Plainsong" began to play, we were overwhelmed by the strength of the music which poured from the speakers. We listened with rapt attention to the entire song, both of us enthralled by the sheer strength of it. When the song had ended, we realized that there had been lyrics but neither of us was able to recall what they had been about.
Let me take a minute to explain the strangeness of this event. Amy and I were (and still are) die-hard Cure fans. We would sit for hours listening to Robert Smith's howling voice as only true fans can. Though they were dubbed sad and depressing by the music critics. Cure songs were our favorites. There always seemed to be a theme lurking in the lyrics. However, "Plainsong" was different. The lyrics (something we considered ourselves to specialize in) paled in comparison to the music (something we knew nothing about). We quickly began to discuss what had gone through our minds as the music had filled our ears. Knowing next to nothing about the instruments involved in creating the Cure's music, I had let my imagination run free and create a visual image of what I had heard. I can't forget the forcefulness with which the music stimulated my mental images.
To give you an idea of what was taking place inside of my head, I'll play the song and try to describe on paper the mental pictures it brings to mind.
Immediately following that stretch of silence that precedes all music, the faint harmony of bells, or wind chimes comes alive. The tinkling is so soft I close my eyes and have to strain my ears to hear it. As the melodious sound enters my head, I immediately picture myself standing on a deserted beach with my face toward the ocean and a slight breeze stirring wind chimes which hang somewhere behind me.
I have savored the quiet harmony of the chimes for only twenty seconds when it abruptly begins to fade; only a vanishing echo hangs in the air. Just as the vision begins to fade, I hear the crash of cymbals like the pounding of a wave on this beach which once again comes alive in my head. As the sound of the cymbal resonates, a lower and more forceful instrument, the synthesizer, suddenly storms in; the heavy final blow of the wave. Drums begin to beat a steady rhythm and the wind chimes are now back in full force. They ring with a determined tinkling sound which reminds me of the cool ocean spray. I can almost smell the saltiness of the breeze.
As the low throbbing hum of the synthesizer creates a solid foundation, a series of six higher notes is played on the keyboard. As the notes move slowly down the scale and then quickly back up, my vision of the ocean becomes more clear. As this sequence of notes is repeated several times, I can visualize the waves crashing onto the sand at my feet and rolling back out to sea.
After the powerful repetitions of the first few notes, the synthesizer suddenly makes a brief climb up the scale. The rhythm has been broken and the pounding subsides. The notes hang in the air as I envision the momentary calm that quiets the sea. As quickly as the calm came, it is gone. The wind chimes come alive again and the music repeats the previous crashing and resonating melody.
After the second repetition, the wind chimes again make their vibrant tinkling and the keyboard answers with a somewhat different tune. The same few notes played in the beginning of the song are repeated, but in a different order. Even though the synthesizer continues to pulsate, the keyboard's harmony evens out. In my vision I look out over the water and see a large ship sliding across the horizon. The synthesizer and wind chimes keep me aware of the pounding waves at my feet.
As the notes move up the keyboard a fourth time, they are met with another instrument, the guitar. The first half of the song is repeated; only this time the prominent sound is not the keyboard, but the guitar. The sound is pleasant but the guitar puts an edge on the piece, bringing a chill to my daydream. The sky is gray and the ocean breeze causes goosebumps to appear on my arms.
After the repetition of the melody from the beginning half of the song, the guitar disappears and Robert Smith's voice is heard echoing eerily as he quietly sings the lyrics:
"I think it's dark and it looks like rain" you said "and the wind is blowing like it's the end of the world" you said "and it's so cold it's like the cold if you were dead" and then you smiled for a second.
The tune that this is sung to is the same one that has been playing throughout the song. Smith's voice lends an eerie quality to the music. It floats through my vision of the ocean with a mesmerizing effect. The lyrics sum up the picture in my head. A cold, hypnotic feeling comes over me. Smith continues.
"I think I'm old and I'm feeling pain" you said "and it's all running out like it's the end of the world" you said "and it's so cold it's like the cold if you were dead" and then you smiled for a second.
The dream state continues as the lyrics echo depressingly through my head. In my mental ocean scene, a thick fog is rolling toward the shore. It begins to rain as Smith finishes his song.
Sometimes you make me feel like I'm living at the edge of the world like I'm living at the edge Of the world "it's just the way I smile" you said.
I can now picture myself standing in the fog with rain silently dimpling the smooth sand around me. Smith's echo fades as the guitar returns and the chorus is played yet again. When the entire section has been repeated, the guitar fades. The synthesizer runs up the scale while the keyboard simultaneously runs down it. The wind chimes tinkle forcefully one final time before fading. The guitar comes in one last time to offer a few ending notes and then fades with the chimes. All that's left is the keyboard and synthesizer which are now playing a single note at opposite ends of the scale. Finally, they too fade off as does my daydream into the silence that follows all music.
The beauty of "Plainsong" is that each time I listen to it is like the first. The music continually astounds me with its strength. Though Robert Smith has written numerous songs since "Plainsong," none have matched it's ferocity and forcefulness. Having listened to "Plainsong" countless times I can't help but notice what it has taught me: though lyrics are important, sometimes the real message, or image, is in the music to which they are sung.
Smith, Robert. The Cure: Disintegration. Berkshire, England: Outside Studios, 1989.