Icon: The Cure
Beloved as they are by billions the world over, the Cure often seem like a band that don’t get a whole lot of respect. Coming up in the same verdant, gloomy UK post-punk scene that spawned Siouxsie and the Banshees, the group was derided by their peers in Joy Division and the Smiths as pretenders, and were frequently scoffed at by the more self-important members of the rock press – some of whom eventually took to referring to Cure main man Robert Smith as “Fat Bob.” They will never be mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana and the Pixies as visionaries or musical innovators, and they are never first on anyone’s mind when it comes time for things like Rock Hall inductions or celebratory concerts. Disintegration, considered by most to be their greatest work, was awarded a humble C+ by legendary rock critic Robert Christgau, dismissed disgustedly as “gothic clichÃ©s.” In that year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll, the record placed a lowly 39th.
And yet it’s impossible to dispute the group’s incredible influence. Groups as disparate as Interpol and the Deftones have both owned up to an appreciation for the group’s work, and you can hear echoes of Smith’s pained wail in everything from late ’00s mascara-emo to some of the more erratic electro-pop. More than 30 years since their inception, the group boasts a towering body of work, one that ranges from deep philosophical inquiries to nursery rhyme reveries on the days of the week. Lost and lonely, strange as angels, the Cure, time and time again, illustrate the perfect power of melancholia.
The Dark Masterpieces
Everything you need to know about the Cure's best record is summed up in its opening line: "It doesn't matter if we all die." Relentlessly bleak and almost perversely nihilistic, Pornography is a disembodied wail in a 2am cemetery, the last missive from a ghost ship before it disappears into the black. There aren't words adequate enough to encompass the undistilled, bloodshot horror in the bent-metal riff that powers "One Hundred Years."... The songs that follow only deepen the misery of that opening salvo. And what a salvo! "Just a piece of new meat in a clean room," Smith wails near the song's conclusion, "A hundred years of blood, crimson / the ribbon tightens 'round my throat."more »
Throughout, Smith's lyrics are pure horror-show: "One more day like today and I'll kill you"; "Eyes like ice don't move, screaming at the moon"; "A charcoal face bites my hand/ derange and disengage everything." The bleakness of his mood is matched by the menace of the music: The title track opens with sickening, backwards-looped speech before cracking open the cabinet of Dr. Caligari and letting the dead-eyed demon loose; the horrific cello line groaning beneath the bottom of "Cold" essentially invented the spirit - if not the form - of black metal. It's the sonic equivalent of being kidnapped and nailed into a coffin - sickening and maniacally methodical. It is one of the few perfect records produced in what could loosely be termed the "Goth" subgenre, and stands as a high-water mark in the Cure's sprawling catalog. They would never be this focused in vision - or this terrifying in content - again.
More than a mere setup for their 1982 masterpiece Pornography, Faith served to push the Cure further away from their post-punk beginnings. By this point a lean and nervy three-piece, the group initially imagined the record as an exploration of the idea of belief. But after each of them suffered a series of personal tragedies - including the passing of close friends and family members - the record ended up turning notions... of faith inside-out, gradually becoming more cynical and despairing. It's easy to detect the influence of Smith's idol Camus in his writing - "The Drowning Man" almost reads like a paraphrase of Camus' The Fall - and the album's monochromatic artwork is a good indication of the music inside. With few exceptions - the splendid, rubbery "Primary" being one of them - the songs are muted. "All Cats Are Grey" relies on a lone despondent organ and Smith's vocal in "The Funeral Party" crashes down like a waterfall. Everything here is cut from the same yellowed shroud, and the group finds their groove by slowing down, and every song feels like a despondent sigh.more »
That the Cure were becoming more and more fascinated by shadows was apparent. In the brooding title track Smith commands, "rape me like a child christened in blood" - this version of the album, in line with the group's original intent, closes with the gripping half-hour instrumental "Carnage Visors." Designed as a soundtrack to a short film by the brother of Cure bassist Simon Gallup, its surging sonics provide both an eerie post-script to this album and a mournful prologue to the next.
Released in 1980, Seventeen Seconds finds the Cure a very different band than the one that recorded 1979's Three Imaginary Boys. That record opened with the itchy St. Vitus Dance number "10:15 Saturday Night," but Seventeen Seconds starts with a piano plinking out a minor-key melody - music better suited to grave-digging than body-moving. It's a bit of a fakeout; the Cure weren't yet ready to take that long day's journey into... night. But that doesn't make Seventeen Seconds Combat Rock. Throughout, the band favors clean lines and rigid structures, giving 17 Seconds a bleached, brittle feeling. The music is impressively skeletal: the guitars in "Play for Today" are tense as a wire fence; "M," which takes its name from Fritz Lang's eerie film about a child murderer, stalks and lurches moodily, hands in its trenchcoat pockets, sour look on its face. The best moments are the ones that feel loaded with implication: the slow-crawling guitar line that sets up "A Forest" is splendidly icy, a testament to what can happen when an economical arrangement meets a cynical worldview. Seventeen Seconds raises gooseflesh using just the tips of its chilly fingers.more »
Part of the strange magic of the Cure is found in the band's warring impulses. Early in his career Smith seemed hellbent on malice and menace. But over time those aims started shifting, growing gradually more comfortable with the pleasures of the simple pop song. More than any other record in the Cure's canon, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is the perfect representation of that duality. A double-album when it was... released (the original CD pressing stingily excluded the giddy rave-up "Hey You!!!") , it goes straight from the harrowing "The Kiss" ("Your tongue is like poison!") to the fluttering "Catch!" and remains just as delightfully mixed-up for the remainder. It's no wonder: Kiss Me, recorded as the band's commercial success was hitting its peak, was the Cure's first truly collaborative record, each member contributing a core idea that the rest would flesh out to completion. It's a sonically restless work, one that finds room for plaintive rainy-day ballads (the peerless "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep"), creepy-crawlers ("Like Cockatoos") and just about everything in between.more »
Kiss Me also contains many of the group's greatest pop triumphs: "Just Like Heaven," which on most days is high in the running for Greatest Pop Song of All Time, the delightfully daffy "Why Can't I Be You?", the horn chart of which has aged in the way that only great cheese can, and the scatterbrained "Hot Hot Hot!!!!" which affords Smith the opportunity to squash and stretch his voice into all sorts of strange configurations. And while the record is long - well over an hour, in fact - it never feels labored. If Disintegration was a single focused masterpiece, Kiss Me is the Cure at their schizoid best.
The Oddball Pop Outings
While there's little about the Cure's discography that could be considered canny or conventional, the Top stands out as an oddity among oddities. Unavailable for years on CD - a fact that no doubt contributed to the record's aura of mystery - even Smith himself describes the record as "fucking deranged." Juggling the writing and recording of this album with his guitar duties in Siouxsie & the Banshees, Smith survived in the... studio on a steady diet of alcohol and chemicals, playing most of the instruments on the record himself and exercising a fanatic degree of control over the final product.more »
Fittingly, the album indeed sounds like the product of a man slowly losing his mind. Harrowing opener "Shake Dog Shake," with its dirge-like bass and Smith cooing "wake up in the new blood" is as dizzying and debilitating as an acid tab, and the chilling dying-diva vocal Smith affects on "Piggy in the Mirror" offers a snapshot of his peeling mental landscape. Even its sole pop hit, "The Caterpillar," smacks of brain-fried lunacy. Though it's not entirely successful as a record, it is a strangely riveting listen, one that provokes a litany of baffling questions (chief among them, what the fuck is happening in "Bananafishbones"?) The Top is the record you go for once you've heard all the others, for one last strange surrealist delight.
If there is a starting point for The Cure Mach 2 - the point at which the group began to turn their backs on the Raincoat Brigade and started entertaining some of their sunnier impulses - The Head on the Door is it. After the dense and suffocating The Top, the giddy strum of "In Between Days" rushes in like a cool breeze to a stale room, Smith closing the book on... the group's past in its opening line: "Yesterday I got so old I felt like I could die." That doesn't mean The Head on the Door is all incense and peppermints - the zombie mariachi number "The Blood" is centered around Smith howling "I am paralyzed by the blood of Christ!" - but it is the first time the Cure started behaving like a band rather than just minions of Smiths' grim bidding. It's also the first time Smith started entertaining what would gradually become one of his more abiding fascinations, what Katy Perry would, some decades later, refer to as "a love bipolar." Smith is fascinated by romance, and he turns around in his hands like a mobile or a Rubik's cube. In the magnificent "Six Different Ways," which is held together by a team of merrily pan-piping synths, he marvels "This is stranger than I ever thought/ Six different ways inside my heart" and has a panic attack about an unobtainable lover amid the gentle bob of "Close to Me." It's a good look for Smith; if the group's early works were heady and existential, Smith's ability to apply the same philosophical wranglings to matters of the heart point the way to the band's future. For much of The Head on the Door - and the records that would follow - Smith treats love like Schrodinger's cat: he never knows whether it's alive or dead, and the conundrum is driving him crazy.more »
Before they were the grand wizards of gloom, the Cure were a tidy little post-punk band. Three Imaginary Boys is lanky and nervy, minimalist numbers delivered in a snide late '70s drawl. Aside from an inexplicable cover of "Foxy Lady," Boys traffics in spry, brittle numbers perfectly in line with bands like Gang of Four, who were making waves at roughly the same time. And while there's nothing here that's absolutely essential,... some songs - like the tensile chug of "Grinding Halt" or the clammy bop of "Fire in Cairo" serve as a singular portrait of a young band razoring off what little fat remained on punk rock.more »
The Post-Punk Outlier
As the Cure began to prosper commercially they also - both by necessity and force of habit - improved as a live band. These days, Cure shows routinely swell to nearly three hours, Smith gamely plucking rarities and obscurities from the group's vast catalog to satiate fans while serving up enough "Just Like Heaven"s to thrill first-timers. Show was recorded during the 1992 tour in support of Wish, which had proven even... more successful than Disintegration. Appropriately, Show draws heavily on material from that album, and though the songs don't sound radically different from their studio arrangements, they are delivered with enough charisma to make this an interesting document (die-hards may find more to love in the companion piece, Paris which, though it was recorded during the same tour, places a greater focus on deep cuts). Of particular note is a searing take on "Never Enough," which finds Smith at his most agitated.more »
The Live Experience
As the Cure began to prosper commercially they also — both by necessity and force of habit — improved as a live band. These days, Cure shows routinely swell to nearly three hours, Smith gamely plucking rarities and obscurities from the group's vast catalog to satiate fans while serving up enough "Just Like Heaven"s to thrill first-timers. Show was recorded during the 1992 tour in support of Wish, which had proven even... more successful than Disintegration. Appropriately, Show draws heavily on material from that album, and though the songs don't sound radically different from their studio arrangements, they are delivered with enough charisma to make this an interesting document (die-hards may find more to love in the companion piece, Paris which, though it was recorded during the same tour, places a greater focus on deep cuts). Of particular note is a searing take on "Never Enough," which finds Smith at his most agitated.more »
The One That Came Out In 2000
Never trust an aging pop star eager to reclaim his legacy. Though Bloodflowers, with its languid tempos and longer songs, represented an encouraging shift away from the pharmacy-pop nightmare that was Wild Mood Swings, it also had the faint aroma of a man playing to the eyelined masses. When it was released, Smith kept insisting it was the conclusion of the trilogy that began with Pornography and Disintegration, which is sort of... like saying Garfield: The Movie is the conclusion of a trilogy that began with Dracula and Frankenstein.more »
Having said all of that, Bloodflowers is far from an unmitigated disaster. Mournful 7-minute opener "Out of this World," with its pealing guitars and melancholy melody indeed recall Disintegration, and the sprawling 11-minute "Watching Me Fall" ranks among Smith's strongest work. Unfortunately, there's also the moody lite-rock of "The Last Days of Summer" and the pallid trip-hop divorce dirge "The Loudest Sound" with which to contend.
Perhaps as a way of lending the album even more gravitas, Smith went on record insisting Bloodflowers would be the Cure's final album. Indeed, its lyrics speak to that intention: The album opens with Smith asking "When we look back on it all, as I know we will / will we really remember how it feels to be this alive?" and in the turbulent "39" he insists "I've run right out of thoughts, I've run right out of words." The two records he wrote after Bloodflowers, sadly, do nothing to dispute that assertion.