Though catapulted to early success with “Boys Don’t Cry,” the Cure — led by obsessive/depressive singer/guitarist Robert Smith, originally with Michael Dempsey on bass (replaced after one LP by Simon Gallup) and Laurence (Lol) Tolhurst on drums — originally specialized in the presentation of a gloomy, nihilistic world view.
Boys Don’t Cry, the American edition of Three Imaginary Boys with several tracks replaced by singles, shows the Cure — although barely competent at playing their instruments (no other future superstar of the new wave made such a weak-sounding debut) — to be masters of the three-minute form. It includes some amazingly terse and effective musical dissertations on loneliness (“10:15 Saturday Night”), war and hatred (“Killing an Arab,” “Fire in Cairo”), the precariousness of urban life (“Subway Song”) and trendiness (“Jumping Someone Else’s Train”). An intelligent, unique halfway point between Gang of Four and the Jam. The 21st century reissue adds a second disc of demos and contemporaneous live performances, which vary widely in quality and fidelity but are (mostly) worth hearing and at times very illuminating.
Seventeen Seconds moved the Cure — temporarily a quartet with Matthieu Hartley on keyboards — further into terra incognita, away from the pop song and into the angst epic. Some songs (“Play for Today,” “In Your House”) still offer a fading element of hope, but the title track, “The Final Sound” and “A Forest” all take a turn towards disconsolateness.
Despair arrives in Faith as an element of style. Sacrificing any pretense of fun, the music is strengthened by an impassioned but sedated mood, its themes as powerful and defiant as any in recent music. (Carnage Visors, which appears only as a bonus on the UK cassette version of Faith, is the hastily assembled instrumental soundtrack of a short film made for use on tour by Simon Gallup’s brother, and provides even stronger reasons for locking up the razorblades while listening.)
The sarcastically titled Happily Ever After combines Seventeen Seconds and Faith into a double album for American release.
Pornography seems to be the climax of Smith’s obsessions, by now coalesced into resigned paranoia; the music firmly establishes the group as superior if idiosyncratic. As usual, the true star here is the phobic, morbid atmosphere. Recommended, but not for the suicide-prone.
With Smith temporarily splitting his time between Siouxsie and the Banshees and his own band (which by this point revolved entirely around him and Tolhurst), a far different Cure emerged. The playful “Let’s Go to Bed” heralded a new era of stylistic innovation and sporadic whimsy, played out on a series of singles beginning in late 1982. The Walk EP — four songs of New Orderish synth-based music that’s more solemn than miserable — was also issued in the US with the earlier “Let’s Go to Bed” and its flipside added. Japanese Whispers, a compilation of 45s, then appeared in both countries, reprising the entire American EP plus a subsequent bit of jazzy froth, “The Lovecats,” and its similar B-side, “Speak My Language.”
Having almost fully exercised their dalliance with light relief, Smith and Tolhurst, joined by a drummer and sax player, recorded The Top, which basically returns them to more familiar corners of gloomy self-indulgence. Except for “The Caterpillar,” which is upbeat and likable pop, the record is not among the Cure’s best, and disjointed excursions into psychedelia, heavy rock and dance rhythms only punctuate its shortcomings.
Over the course of the following two years, the Cure issued a lot of music, although only one new studio album arrived in the onslaught. The UK-only live record — drawn from a week of shows in May 1984 — contains some of the group’s most significant tracks to that point but is most notable in its cassette version, which adds a bonus album’s worth of demos (including a positively winsome May ’78 rendition of “Boys Don’t Cry,” a full year prior to the song’s release), live audience tapes and other curios (“from Robert’s cassette collection”) entitled Cure Anomalies 1977–1984.
The fine career-long singles compilation Standing on a Beach is worth finding in its non-vinyl format. The tape adds a dozen B-sides; the CD edition, falling in line with the video-clip compilation, is titled Staring at the Sea and adds four tracks. (In a bizarre development, the LP’s inclusion of “Killing an Arab” created an enormous tumult when an American pro-Arab organization, ignoring that the song had been in circulation since 1979, took its title from an Albert Camus novel and in no way advocates violence to Arabs, launched a political campaign against the band.)
With “In Between Days,” The Head on the Door opens sounding exactly like New Order. By the second song, of course, Smith’s fickle idiom dabbling returns the band — here a revamped quintet, with Simon Gallup back in the fold — to an entirely different world, via the mildly oriental “Kyoto Song,” and follows in flamenco style with “The Blood.” Toeing a line between pop and sullenness keeps the Cure from achieving maximal creative impact, but it’s an altogether listenable album that is sporadically (“Push” and “Close to Me,” for example) as eclectically brilliant as can be. The Quadpus EP joins two B-sides — including the bizarre “A Man Inside My Mouth” — to “Close to Me” and “A Night Like This” from the album.
Doubtless encouraged by growing international stardom, the Cure released an ambitious and challenging double-album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. Sporting a dense and dynamic arena-scaled rock sound and adding such touches as wah-wah guitar, sitar, strings and horns, the organically coherent album surges with gloomy power but also percolates with occasional bits of charming low-key pop. Smith’s resolutely miserable, ironic lyrical visions (“The Kiss,” “Shiver and Shake,” “How Beautiful You Are…”) fill even some of the musically lighter songs, although a few (including “Catch,” “The Perfect Girl,” “Hey You!!!” and “Why Can’t I Be You?”) do offer giddy love sentiments.
The Cure repeated the expansive, gauzy sonic approach of Kiss Me on Disintegration, but slowed down and stretched out the material even more, perhaps enjoying the lazy rhythms and rich textures a bit too much. Despite the enervatingly trancey ambience that suffuses the record, Smith does come through with a few great songs — “Pictures of You,” “Lovesong,” the driving “Fascination Street.” (The CD and cassette add “Homesick” and “Last Dance.”)
Remixing the seven-minutes-plus “Pictures of You” down to under five, the Cure attached four intricate, atmospheric live renditions (from a 1989 London show) of Disintegration songs and released it all as a CD EP. (In the UK, a collection of eight live Disintegration tracks from the same source were issued as Entreat, initially as a limited retail giveaway and later as a commercial item.)
Integration boxes up the four CD EPs (as originally issued) from Disintegration, throwing in a small group poster as an added incentive to indecisive consumers. Besides Pictures of You, there’s Lullaby (adding a remix and two live tracks), Fascination Street (two remixes and a pair of non-LP studio creations) and Lovesong (also two mixes and two non-LP songs).
After years of keeping a very firm grip on the Cure’s creative output, Robert Smith took the unprecedented step of inviting a variety of studio hounds to have a go at remixing the band’s 12-inch catalogue and issuing an album of the ones that worked out to his satisfaction. The extremely uneven Mixed Up is a strange package, with one brand new song (the hard-rocking “Never Enough”), newly recorded and mixed re-creations of “The Walk” and “A Forest,” a few previously issued versions of familiar singles and, most provocative, disfiguring reworkings of several Cure classics. “Close to Me” gets a shuffling house beat and horns; “Pictures of You” undergoes a complete dub/house remodeling; the dancefloor “Inbetween Days” is nearly unrecognizable. (In an amusing bit of format perversity, the bonus track of “Why Can’t I Be You?” is only on vinyl.)
The Peel session from December 1978 records the original trio giving four early classics — including “Killing an Arab” and “Boys Don’t Cry” (on which overdubbed guitars ruin the illusion of it being a completely live effort) — skeletal readings that lack the familiar studio renditions’ urgent excitement.
Bassist Simon Gallup, who left the Cure in 1982 (between Pornography and The Walk), is the leader of Fools Dance, a quintet whose lamely selfconscious five-song 12-inch EP was released shortly after Gallup rejoined the Cure.
Wish scales back the music to a vibrant, busy intimacy; the group seems content to have it all sound alike, not bothering much about differentiating individual songs. Only the simple ’60s lollipop jangle of “Friday I’m in Love” and the elegiac “Trust” stand out clearly from the crowd. The lyrics reveal why highly developed arrangements probably weren’t a major concern to the band during the album’s production: Smith’s harrowing squirm in the spotlight is so loaded down with angst and unhappiness that it’s amazing he could actually rouse himself to the enthusiasm he manages here. After acknowledging various forms of extreme discomfort (meaningless social contact in “Open,” meaningless sexual contact in “Wendy Time,” a meaningfully broken heart in “A Letter to Elise” and “To Wish Impossible Things”), he delivers a crushing pronouncement in the chillingly titled and evocatively despairing “End”: “I think I’ve reached that point / Where giving up and going on / Are both the same dead end to me.” In what can only be taken as an unprecedented plea for wholesale fan desertion, Smith repeatedly bawls “Please stop loving me…I am none of these things.” Heavy shit.
Short of cavalier deception, such a confession doesn’t leave much room for a bright and shining future, yet Smith and the Cure hit the road in late ’92 to support Wish on a tour that produced two live albums (plus an EP) with complementary set lists. Show, recorded in Michigan, is heavy on the Wish songs; Sideshow, an EP of leftovers from the same gig, repeats “Just Like Heaven” but appends “Fascination Street,” “The Walk,” “Let’s Go to Bed” and the instrumental intro played on tape before the band’s onstage arrival. Paris buries a couple of Wish bones amid an eccentric and esoteric root through the back catalogue: “Charlotte Sometimes,” “Close to Me” and “Lovesong” are the best-known songs here. Although not always a compelling act in concert, the Cure is in fine form — upbeat, detailed, engaged. Wherever Smith left his disconsolate anomie, it’s nowhere in evidence. Tolhurst, whose role in the group had become increasingly undefined, departed before Wish, leaving the Cure a trim quintet of Smith, Simon Gallup (bass), Boris Williams (drums), Porl Thompson (guitar/keyboards, but soon to depart for a year’s tour with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page) and newcomer Perry Bamonte (guitar/keyboards). Without further instrumental assistance, both concert discs are heavy on thick atmosphere — you can almost smell the church incense seething out from amid the dense drones — and distinguished, as ever, by Smith’s unmistakable voice.
In mid-’96, the Cure broke a four-year studio silence by releasing Wild Mood Swings. In this potent and sweeping dissertation on melancholy and tentative dreams denied, Smith presents his emotional diffidence and despair with more than the usual musical confidence and enthusiasm. In this consistently compelling collection, the bittersweet “Strange Attraction” — a disappointing romance with a letter-writing fan — stands out for sharing subtle and credible emotions in a most attractive setting.
Red warning flags went up when Smith announced that Bloodflowers would complete a trilogy begun by Pornography and Disintegration. While the two earlier albums definitely shared a certain mood and tone, they seemed to be accurate reflections of where Smith’s mind was at at the time, leaving any similarities between them coincidental. To purposefully set out to make an album that “completed” the trilogy seemed like a calculated attempt to revisit past glories, and Bloodflowers feels like a forced recreation of the earlier gloomy classics. The album sounds completely uninspired, as Smith and company go through the motions of Cure-ness: glacial tempos, despondent lyrics, yadda yadda yadda. Smith also said it would be the band’s final album, but he’d called attention to that particular wolf a little too often for its announcement this time to be taking very seriously. (That said, the album’s audible exhaustion and lack of creative energy gave the thought credence.) Had Smith paid attention to movie history, he would’ve known that the third chapter in trilogies always suck, and Bloodflowers is definitely the Godfather III of this batch. It’s ponderous, labored and unnecessary. (The Cure later performed all three albums, in their entirety, on three consecutive nights in Berlin, an event released on DVD as Trilogy.)
With the release of only one new studio album since Galore: The Singles 1987-1997, 2001’s Greatest Hits seemed a fairly crass exercise. To pry open fan wallets yet again, the package includes two okay but not great new songs (one featuring the long-forgotten band Republica’s Saffron on vocals) and a disc of unplugged greatest hits for aging fans to play in the SUV while waiting for their little gothlings to finish soccer practice. There’s no faulting the greatest hits as such, which remain as dazzling as the first bajillion or so times the band peddled them, but the impulse behind this release is troubling.
That concern does not apply to Join the Dots, a boxed set which collects 70 B-sides, remixes, compilation tracks, etc. It’s an impressive compilation, especially since the Cure has never been shy about using quality tracks for B-sides; many here (most notably the majestic “A Few Hours After This”) rival much of what’s on Greatest Hits. While this would’ve been the perfect place for “Hey You!!!” — the track from the vinyl version of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me that was left off the CD — to make its digital debut, but what’s here is a remix, leaving the original hard to find.
An eponymous album late in a band’s career generally bespeaks either a Grand Statement or creative exhaustion. Smith continues to flail a bit artistically on The Cure, but sometimes seems on the verge of regaining his equilibrium and inspiration. Produced by nu-metal guru Ross Robinson, The Cure is the loudest Cure album in some time, at the expense of nuance. “The End of the World,” “Never” and “The Promise” are worthy additions to the catalog, but elsewhere the Robinson inspired aggression falls flat; when Smith goes potty-mouthed in “Us or Them,” the results are giggle-inducing. While there are some hopeful signs, too much of the album is unmemorable, and Smith sounds less depressed than tired. He’s clearly attempting to recharge his creative batteries, but he’s only halfway there.
Following Bloodflowers’ unconvincing attempt to complete a trilogy no one knew existed and The Cure’s only semi-successful attempt to drag the band into unfamiliar territory, the impression created by 4:13 Dream is one of surrender and resignation — not so much in the material, which is mostly upbeat, but in the capitulation of its presentation. 4:13 Dream feels like the kind of Cure album fans have always loved, mixing psychedelic rockers with frothy, off-kilter gothic pop. As an archetypal Cure album, it’s unquestionably a success, coming off like a miniaturized Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (in fact, like that album, this was created as a double disc but edited down to one). “Underneath the Stars” is a characteristic guitar-fueled overture, followed by “The Only One,” which harks back to earlier Cure pop singles — perhaps a little too much, as the guitar riff is a thinly veiled recycle of the central riff from “Just Like Heaven.” The album is packed with relatively strong material, from poppier numbers (“Freakshow” and “The Perfect Boy”) to harder-rocking tracks (“Sleep When I’m Dead” and “It’s Over”). 4:13 Dream might well have been deemed a classic had it come out in 1986 (it pretty much landed with a thud in 2008). Its only major drawback is the sense that Smith has thrown in the towel on challenging himself or his following, now content to simply give the people what they want. This isn’t a terrible turn of events so long as he continues to craft material as good as the majority of 4:13 Dream, but it’s still tempting to expect more.