The Cure

TrackAlbum / Single
PlainsongDisintegration
Perfect GirlKiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
Just Like HeavenKiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
The Drowning ManFaith
PrimaryFaith
LostThe Cure
Never EnoughFiction FISC 35
In Between DaysThe Head On The Door
The Hanging GardenPornography
PornographyPornography

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Contributor: Duncan Harman

The rain falls hard and greasy, each Atlantic low beating winter’s bounds. I stand at the windows of the cottage, casually appraising the dappled view beyond; the bay, its sliver of beach – all shingle and scree – then above, the ribbons of cloud swinging low-cut and moody across the vista as if oversized standards of a far-off cavalry; it is not a day for venturing out. Best stay warm, tucked up by the fire – go on, put a record on.

The Cure are elusive. A band, and a brand. Permanent yet ephemeral. Different yet the same. They’ve been a stadium act for longer than we care to remember, yet intrinsically appeal to the disenfranchised – a skein of outsider chic that in some hardly-fathomable way sits above or beyond the alt-music parameters they’ve spent years defining.

At school it was always the weird, unpopular, more studious kids who’d be recreating the stylised band name on their pencil cases, and whilst we all subsequently headed off in different directions – be it post-punk, goth-rock, synth-pop or asinine careers in middle management – The Cure were always part of the story. Entry point for the pop kids. Last orders with snakebite and black. French A-level – Camus’ L’Étranger, not in translation – and the soundtrack suggested itself.

The Cure were formed in pre-history (or 1978, from the embers of Easy Cure, if you’re keeping count). “Longevity” – according to medieval scholar and theologian Maimonides – “is the result of freedom from grief and worry.” It’s a curious statement, sitting without context in a dictionary of Jewish Quotation I happened to be browsing; for when you consider just how much grief and worry (of whatever form) a long existence guarantees, it’s the opposite view that feels more accountable.

Perhaps Maimonides was suggesting that it’s our response to adversity that encourages long life; celebration through deism, or a riff on that old “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” trope.

I, on the other hand, took his words as music criticism; the inadvertent admission that he only ever listened to The Cure via the release of 1986’s Standing On A Beach compilation, and thus isn’t really qualified to evaluate back catalogue.

Standing On A Beach (released as Staring At The Sea in some territories) would have been the first Cure album that crossed my radar; like all greatest hits packages (and the band have certainly had a few), it only tells part of the story. Lol Tolhurst and a certain Robert James Smith were the only constant members by this point, Tolhurst having swapped drums for keyboards somewhere en route (he’d later swap keyboards for booze, chemicals, then the dole queue), and to that extent such open-door line-up and extrapolation of style is displayed on this record – but only a flavour.

That’s because Smith, whilst such the distinctive songwriter, has always made a virtue of sidestepping vogue. Hence Standing On A Beach, signposting the journey from post-punk sparseness (Killing An Arab; Boys Don’t Cry) through to well-toned, synth-driven stadium pop (The Walk; In Between Days) without bothering to investigate the sonic depth located beyond the strict confines of the 7″, or to ask why and how the band’s sound swung so starkly between pop narratives and all that grief and worry Maimonides was so keen on.

Just as you can tell a great deal about someone’s disposition from their favourite Beatles album, the same is true in relation to The Cure – except that where the former’s career arc is linear, Smith’s manipulation of form and function pings back and forth, curls in and around itself, subjugating notions of a pure pop aesthetic by the explicit use of contrast; with gravity wells of howl, and anguish, and reflection.

Back in the present, in the cottage, rain rapping against the thick stone walls, and you place Disintegration, the band’s eighth studio album (ninth, if you include Boys Don’t Cry) on the turntable. (And yes, I’m aware that we’re flitting about the narrative a little – as previously noted, this isn’t a linear story).

“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 opening stanza of Plainsong (not, incidentally a single – this may become a theme). A phalanx of sweeping synth chords, strident yet minor-key, that immediately embrace the listener, teasing against the mechanics of momentum. Guitar, floating elegantly above the mix as if propelled by rising thermals. Finally, the vocal. A lost and found experience, specifically pitched, and conscious of the equilibrium of its surroundings. A track that’s delicately poised across a range of relationships; that between artist and listener, between song and the rest of the album, and – common to more than one Robert Smith composition – across the interplay between the track’s two protagonists, the first person narrative with second person inflexion a gateway through which this cocooned intimacy encroaches.

Few records sound so indicative of its front cover as Disintegration, and few tracks define album as mood as closely as Plainsong.

And perhaps that’s a key element of the appeal; Smith (who’s penned the vast majority of Cure lyrics) as Gothic Romanticist (as opposed to goth revivalist); Byronic in inflexion, cajoled by desperation, and an emotional rawness buttressed by swirls of tempest and discordance.

It’s by this reading that pop Cure – The Love Cats and Let’s Go To Bed and Friday I’m In Love – whilst perfectly acceptable on their own distinct terms, function as palate cleansers when viewed in a wider context. Musical sorbet, to be enjoyed whilst watching TFI Friday

… and yes; that’s possibly an esoteric (if not downright unfair) reading of The Cure canon; as with Bowie, who similarly turned his back on the experimental in the early-to-mid 80s, subversive undercurrents can be identified even in Smith’s most overt pop moments – think band trapped in the wardrobe, gurning away in their scarecrow make-up during the video to Close To Me, for instance. Also, pop Cure and this mirror image, emotionally shipwrecked Cure are not mutually exclusive, 1987’s double LP Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me representing a neat mid-point in pendulum swing.

An album of love songs? Sort of – although the emotion is placed in degrading orbit, each tender, wistful moment (Catch; How Beautiful You Are) barely isolated against the savage freefall of opener The Kiss, with its manic lupine guitar and bare-throated lyrics (Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, your tongue like poison, so swollen it fills up my mouth), or the Sisyphean lament of A Thousand Hours.

Double LPs are difficult beasts – there are few that wouldn’t be improved by pruning down to a single disc – but Kiss Me x3 works by virtue of its natural balance (it never quite crashes out into space or down to earth), with two highlights in particular. Both Perfect Girl with its floaty, music-box contours, and Just Like Heaven – the amateur dramatics controlled and evocative rather than trite or trashy – are unashamedly pop, and all the better for it (Dinosaur Jr’s cover version being rather neat and hazy, too). “Show me how you do that trick, the one that makes me scream,” she said; in utilising the words of this “other” there’s the similar dual person/single narrative approach as Plainsong two years later (and, for that matter, The Beatles’ She Said She Said from 1966), yet the song’s dénouement frames its heartbreak in abstract patterns – it clamours for another listen.

Smith’s lyrics have always celebrated duality; a drifting, shifting watercolour (un)preciseness, whether channelling the heart’s filthy lessons or a more primal, involuntary unease. And then there’s the literary bent – debut single Killing An Arab being the most obvious example, but also Charlotte Sometimes (inspired by the Penelope Farmer novel of the same name) and, from 1981’s Faith LP, The Drowning Man, which co-opts the intricate brushwork of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy for narrative attire.

A track caught in aspic; present tense, not past participle. Yet whereas Peake’s prose is dense (an illustrator by trade, his writing exhibits a similar richness of detail that at times suffers under its own weight), The Drowning Man offers an abstract, uninvolved air, both music and lyrics essentially passive in construct, Smith’s guitar trapped in the same distended riff amidst layers of divorced bass, synth and percussion.

The swell of creativity enveloping The Cure during the early 80s remains a frightening proposition – not simply the quantity of material released (four albums between ’79 and ’82 as well as non-LP singles such as Charlotte Sometimes) or even Smith’s extra-curricular activities playing guitar with Siouxsie and the Banshees (alongside Steve Severin, he was also one half of The Glove, whose 1983 LP Blue Sunshine remains an oft-neglected classic – it’s no wonder that mental exhaustion played a hefty part in The Cure’s internal dynamics at this point). We may be thirty-five years removed from Faith, yet it symbolises the emergence from the tight and observational to something fuller, heftier, less distinct yet far more immersive. Dismissed by ignorants as goth (as opposed to Gothic), it’s a sound that owes nothing to scene and all to feel (and to that extent, all that hair and smeared lipstick that to this day still symbolises image actually worked against a wider understanding of Smith’s far more complex intentions).

Primary – also from Faith, as well as that album’s sole representative on Standing On A Beach, proving that it’s a far from useless compilation – is a fearsome record, its brooding presence an antagonism of low-register momentum; there are no synths or guitars on this track, Smith instead routing his six-string bass through a guitar amp to contrast with Simon Gallup’s more conventional bass guitar set-up. With a lost, vocal urgency bracing itself against this dark-pop Duelling Banjos skeleton, Primary is an example of how The Cure’s sound coyly stalks its prey (without ever revealing exactly who is for dinner).

Faith is a dark, explorative experience. Catch me if I fall, laments Smith on its titular closing track. I’m losing hold. I can’t just carry on this way – endings, of letting go, being a recurrent theme across the back cat. I think I’ve reached that point where giving up and going on, are both the same dead end to me (End, the conclusion to 1992’s Wish). So the fire is almost out and there’s nothing left to burn (39, from 2000’s Bloodflowers). And whereas the band’s early intensity (by release schedule as well as the exploitation of anger and desperation) has waned naturally – affluence and middle-age will do that to a flame – even later material still has the ability to smoulder.

Lost, from the eponymous 2004 LP, fashions its own brutalist paradigm; beholden to momentum, yet simultaneously concussed by it. The sly beauty here (not forgetting that it represents another reboot; track #1 on their first album for Geffen Records, and co-produced by Ross Robinson, whose other credits – Korn, Slipknot, et al – represent millennial “nu-metal” of a most tiresome variety) is that it’s a track that never feels like it knows where it’s going. And yet – holding no other option in its sweaty paws – it powers on regardless, streamrolling across the sixth-form poetry underpinning lyrical execution, gradually adding layers of discordant guitar and bass until the whole is something that confronts the listener by virtue of its sheer mass.

“But what about the pop?” you ask, still in that metaphorical cottage by the bay, with Untitled – the final number on Disintegration – bleeding away across the evening. Well; there’s always Never Enough, a 1990 7″ that, until another greatest hits compilation (1997’s Galore), only appeared on album in bastardised form – via the otherwise dated and pretty much forgettable remix LP Mixed Up. There’s something disposable underpinning this song; spiky rather than substantial, and like all great pop records, both a little rough around the edges and betraying tell-tale signs of a band having fun in the studio.

I know what you’re thinking; is Never Enough a better track than High or The Caterpillar or Pictures Of You (which nearly made the cut here – the only thing that counts against it is that it doesn’t hit the longing, fractured depths of Jeff Buckley’s Last Goodbye, or a significant number of Nick Cave tracks)? By way of research I asked a well-known music streaming service for their most listened-to Cure tracks; Friday I’m In Love being the most popular (followed by Just Like Heaven, Boys Don’t Cry, Close To Me then Lullaby). None of which being especially surprising (and in the interests of fairness, I should also point out that the band have released their fair share of turkeys, including a number of misguided covers (Hendrix’s Foxy Lady; Hello, I Love You; pretty much the worst version of Young Americans you’re likely to bump into), and – in 1996 – an entire album, Wild Mood Swings, where the consensus was one of “what the fuck are you doing?”). The point being that any band with longevity on its side, and it becomes harder and harder to escape subjectivity when picking ten tracks that epitomise; should you wish to argue for the merits of A Forest or 10:15 Saturday Night – well, who am I to stop you?

And whilst it’s true that no mention of The Cure’s history is complete without the delicious synth-pop of In Between Days – a track that manages to be pristine in its swirliness and rip-off Peter Hook’s high-register bass (good for the lolz, if nothing else), it’s the band’s ability to pull the listener into its maw where the true appeal resides…

Which means Pornography, 1982’s brooding, self-sufficient masterpiece. The first example of termination; The Cure would never, and could never sound this way again, because to have done so would have been to breach the event horizon.

An album recorded amid drunkenness, depression, antagonism – and it shows; not through execution but in its tonal verisimilitude. An acuteness, the sound of a band engaged in a form of emotional strip-mining. Sonically this has everything you can want from a record; a miasma of overlapping textures, unorthodox percussion, swirling, hanging reverb. There are only eight tracks but they consume, enfold, and endanger in a manner that sits stark even all these years later.

Did I mention that The Cure are still extant? Still a functioning unit, with several of the old members, a new tour booked, long-rumoured new material? … and yet, had they imploded after Pornography – given themselves up to the impetus – it would have been difficult to complain, such is the cloying, over-reaching otherworldliness of what the NME (in its initial review) called “Phil Spector in Hell.”

I could identify any of the eight to conclude this visit. Could hang any of the eight across this forced, remote cottage allegory; could introduce any to the ears of medieval theologians, cartoon goths or nu-metal apologists, and watch as comprehension is washed away. The Figurehead, with scuzzy bass and 4/4 time that keeps suggesting it’s really a waltz. The sweeping synths of Cold, a cryogenically-frozen Disintegration. And if pushed: the primal electricity of The Hanging Garden has to feature somewhere in any “best in show” break-down; the synergy between percussion and rabid bass line startling, Smith’s vocal a casual appraisement of zoological torment, guitar waspishly floated.

But to conclude, I’d be unable to name a more powerful Cure track than the album’s own conclusion. The 6+ minutes of Pornography is epiphany, damnation and benediction; we all look so perfect as we all fall down. It’s the Book of Revelation stripped of biblical baubles, or an Hieronymous Bosch nightmare brought to life, and yet its ferociousness, whilst savage and all-encompassing, is never overt, even with the heavy slabs of musicality plastered in meaty daubs across its canvas.

I must have heard this track a thousand times, yet still divine some new seam, or bruise, or lost dream on each listen. Yeah; take that, Maimonides.

 

The Cure official website

The Cure Concerts Guide

The Cure Lyrics

Robert Smith career information

Chain of Flowers – The Cure news, rumors, minutiae

Curefans international forum

The Cure Community

The Cure biography (iTunes)

Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.

TopperPost #503

3 Comments

  1. Ant
    Feb 22, 2016

    A tremendous read. So hard to pick ten, but can’t fault your choices.

  2. David Lewis
    Feb 26, 2016

    They are, like so many English acts, a great singles band. Just off the top of my head: ‘why can’t I be you’, ‘never enough’, ‘love cats’, wonderful 3 minute explosions of glory: sometimes gloomy, sometimes joyous, always challenging and entertaining and unexpected. The two most demographically diverse concerts I’ve been to were AC/DC and the Cure. The Cure were just wonderful live too.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Feb 29, 2016

    Agree with David that The Cure are among the very best of the singles bands of the last 30 years. At their best, these are superbly crafted songs as well. “Love Cats’ a personal favourite and I would also add ‘Close to Me’ to David’s list. Also admire Robert’s success in creating an audience for himself and the band and his willingness to stick to his guns…

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