Robert Smith’s music has long been so overshadowed by his goth image (pale complexion, teased hair, red lipstick, black attire) that people tend to forget what a brilliant songwriter he is. Hopefully, Rhino’s ambitious campaign of deluxe Cure reissues will start to rectify this, beginning with Three Imaginary Boys, which in December 2004 finally received a stateside release after years of only being available as an import (8 of its songs were included - along with essential early singles such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Plastic Passion,” “Jumping Someone Else's Train,” and “Killing An Arab” - on Boys Don’t Cry instead). Those of you who are only familiar with the band’s later work might be surprised at how simple, sparse, and rocking the band’s early sound was, as comparisons to bands like Wire, Gang Of Four, and The Buzzcocks are more appropriate than Joy Division or The Smiths. Still, though the cold sound wasn’t quite what Smith wanted (or so he says in Johnny Black’s informative liner notes, where I found out that the album was recorded over a mere 5 nights, that the band snuck into the studio after hours, and that they sometimes “borrowed” The Jam’s instruments to record), and the overall sound is somewhat scratchy and demo-like, Smith’s songs are consistently good (for the record, bassist Michael Dempsey and drummer Lol Tolhurst round out the early lineup). “10:15 Saturday Night” a sharp, edgy yet morose rocker, is the album’s best and most well-known song, but hard-hitting riffs also mark angry, frustrated outbursts like “Grinding Halt,” “Object,” and “It’s Not You,” while slowly atmospheric, dirge-like numbers are also present (“Another Day,” “Three Imaginary Boys”). Some of the songs are overly repetitive (“Meat Hook”) or insubstantial (“Subway Song”), and I could live without the Dempsey-sung cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” but “Accuracy” and “Fire In Cairo” are more melodic and memorable, though overall Smith’s somewhat flat vocals lack the character of his later releases. Still, Three Imaginary Boys was a fine first offering, and the second cd of the expanded reissue is an interesting bonus, as its myriad demos, live tracks, and works-in-progress show how the band’s early minimalist sound evolved. True, this disc is of interest primarily to hardcore fans and completeists, but the “Boys Don’t Cry,” and “Jumping Someone Else's Train” singles are included as well, and even non-diehards might get something out of browsing through it from time to time, especially given the reasonable price tag.
Boys Don't Cry (Elektra '80) Rating: A-
Although the earlier album is probably more cohesive, pretty much all the essential songs from Three Imaginary Boys are here as well, so if forced to pick between the two I’d easily go with Boys Don’t Cry. After all, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a bright and catchy pop classic, from its first ringing riff onto its supremely singable chorus, and “Plastic Passion” is a grower whose intensity is more in line with the rest of the album. “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” is another jumpy, jangly classic, while “Killing An Arab,” whose lyrics about Albert Camus’ The Stranger were of course misinterpreted, ‘causing Smith much grief, is another standout, in part due to its atmospheric Middle Eastern vibe. I personally would’ve picked songs other than “So What,” “Subway Song,” and “Grinding Halt” for this release, but even considering that this is The Cure’s best early album and something of a minor new wave/post-punk classic.
Seventeen Seconds (Fiction ’80, Rhino '05) Rating: B+
Faith (Fiction ’81, Rhino '05) Rating: B+
Pornography (Fiction ’82, Rhino '05) Rating: A-
In April 2005, the second batch of Cure reissues came, this time including the trilogy of albums (Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography) on which the more commonly familiar Cure sound came to be. Michael Dempsey didn't agree with Smith's new direction so he was given his walking papers, replaced by Simon Gallup and a keyboard player, Matthieu Hartley. In addition, Smith had felt that Three Imaginary Boys had been compromised by too much intervention from label boss Chris Parry, so Smith banned him from the recording sessions; for better or worse, Seventeen Seconds would be the album he wanted to make.
Although the band’s sound on Seventeen Seconds is again simple, sparse, and minimalist, it’s also much more morose and moody, though few of the individual songs stand out from one another. "Play For Today," “M,” “Seventeen Seconds,” and especially "A Forest" (the album's stellar single and by far its best song) are high quality exceptions, and I really like Smith's guitar tone on songs such as "At Night," but most of these tunes share similar characteristics: sluggish tempos, robotic '80s beats, prominent bass lines, and atmospheric guitar/keyboard shadings, only without the catchy hooks that might make the album seem like more than one big droney mood piece. Fortunately, there are some grower tracks, such as "Secrets," on which Smith sings in a ghostly whisper, and the overall ambiance of the album is drearily hypnotic, despite a few filler-ish tracks like "The Final Sound," which ends abruptly because engineer Mike Hedges ran out of tape and the band was over budget (again from Black’s illuminating liner notes). Still, Smith's inimitable vocal whine is more clearly his own here, and Smith has obviously figured out what he wanted his band to be (mopey "goth" dudes, apparently). I personally would’ve preferred more distinctive songwriting from Smith, but when taken as a whole the album has a seductive, spacey overall power that I’ve grown to appreciate over the years.
Smith ditched Hartley, opting to handle keyboard duties himself on Faith, an album on which The Cure moved further away from “post-punk” by fully embracing “goth.” According to Smith (according to Johnny Black) “we wanted the songs to be funereal but passionate,” and by and large he achieves his goal. Plus, Smith varies the tempos somewhat, though the album is still rather monotonous and stresses mood over memorable, hooky songs. That said, the great chugging groove of “Primary” made for an excellent, fast paced single. “Doubt” ups the tempo as well, though its lyrics (last line: “I stop and kneel beside you, knowing I’ll murder you again tonight”) are certainly in line with the rest of this doomy, quasi-religious, death obsessed album. Fittingly, given the morose subject matter, most of the music here consists of slow paced, droney, dramatic dirges. The songs are good, though, such as “The Holy Hour,” whose gloomy melody is led by Gallup’s slinky bass and Smith’s lush synths. However, it’s Smith’s haunting, haunted vocals that really help make the song a standout, while the brighter, synth-driven “The Funeral Party” is a coldly beautiful soundscape that points the way towards 1990’s Disintegration. Again, the hooks are lacking here (the title track simply repeats a guitar line with a big beat over which Smith wails his tale of woe), but the band was continuing to get better (again I dig Smith’s guitar tone on “The Drowning Man”), enough so that a breakthrough soon beckoned.
Embracing the shadowy storms of sheer misery, Pornography took Faith a few steps further, making their transformation from the band’s Wire-y early direction complete. With Paul Thornalley replacing Mike Hedges as producer, the band’s gloomy gothic sound is built around huge tribal drums (which truth be told have aged poorly), layers of echoed distorted guitar, and, of course, Smith’s unfathomable, unforgettable love-it-or-hate-it voice. As per Seventeen Seconds and Faith, the album is more about building towards an overall mood than focusing on individual songs, but the energy and intensity levels have increased, and Smith’s image-rich if obtuse lyrics are more vivid and accomplished. Self-loathing teenagers the world over ate it up, and Smith became the poster boy (along with Morrissey) for sensitive loner types, this despite the fact that this album again lacks instantly memorable melodies or a slam dunk hit single. That said, “One Hundred Years,” “The Hanging Garden,” "The Figurehead," “A Strange Day,” and “Cold” are all excellent tracks, each in differing ways, in contrast to the rest of the songs, which are unremittingly intense but largely interchangeable. And though the album is relentlessly depressing, with lines like “it doesn’t matter if we all die,” the music is often both coldly beautiful and surprisingly hard rocking, led by Smith’s naggingly insistent guitar playing (heard to best effect on the epic length “One Hundred Years” and “A Strange Day”). Rumbling bass and lush keyboards are again important ingredients as well, the latter especially on “Cold,” a song whose big atmospheric synth washes wouldn’t sound out of place on Disintegration, the album that Smith would years later proclaim as being this album’s belated sequel (with Bloodflowers completing the alleged trilogy a full decade later). Well done though this oppressive album is it’s all a little too one-dimensional and depressing for me to return to often (Smith himself stated that “I wanted it to be virtually unbearable”), and though I greatly admire Pornography it’s from a distance, as the album could use a couple of perfect pop nuggets (something that would appear with increasing dependability on later albums) to at least occasionally lighten things up. That said, it’s a great album for what it is.
As for the bonus second discs, as per usual these are primarily for hardcore fans, but said fans will find much to feast on here. Seventeen Seconds features rough demos, alternate studio mixes, assorted rarities, and a fair amount of surprisingly good live tracks. The majority of these songs are previously unreleased and are considerably less polished than the proper Cure albums. Those who prefer their Cure served raw will certainly appreciate rough, hard rocking demos such as “Another Journey By Train” and their instrumental version of “Secrets,” and in many ways this second cd is actually more fun than Seventeen Seconds (whose primary purpose isn’t “fun”, after all). Best of all is the inclusion of the Cult Hero (the Smith/Gallup side project that led to Gallup joining the band) singles, which are more upbeat and new wavey than The Cure. Smith’s robotic vocals on “I’m A Cult Hero” are barely recognizable as him, and I actually laughed at the lighthearted lyrics of “I Dig You” (I dig you, you dig me...that’s groovy”).
As for the second cd of Faith, the first few demos are forgettable and the live songs are appropriately funereal, proving that The Cure could pull their sound off in a live setting. None of the live tracks are especially essential, though, and the real meat of this disc comes in the form of some really enjoyable out-takes of unfamiliar songs, as well as a very different out-take of “Primary” that’s not as good but which is still kinda cool. These tracks (“Going Home Time,” “The Violin Song,” “A Normal Story”) are largely instrumental as the mostly moaned vocals were just meant as a guide at the time, but the lighter music is far more melodic and playful than anything on Faith. Also of note is the inclusion of the highly regarded “Charlotte Sometimes” single, while disc one also contains a significant bonus track in “Carnage Visors: The Soundtrack,” an instrumental dirge that moodily carries its almost half-hour running time better than you might expect, despite the fact that not much happens the majority of the time!
The instrumental demos are much more impressive on Pornography, in particular “Temptation” (no, not the New Order song), but the sound on the live tracks is sometimes lacking. They’re still worth hearing, but more enticing are alternate studio versions that give a glimpse of how a song like “The Hanging Garden” may have evolved. Again, this is the kind of stuff that will appeal primarily to hardcore fans and collectors, though my guess is that even those people would be hard pressed to sit though, let along enjoy, “Airlock: The Soundtrack,” a 13-minute experimental exercise in sound manipulation that lacks any real sense of direction.
That stinker aside, all of these reissues are worth obtaining even beyond the interesting and sometimes revelatory rarities. After all, Rhino handled these babies, and, as per usual, everything here is first class, with well-written liner notes, printed lyrics, band photos, and discography information all wrapped together in nice looking packages. Best of all, the sound quality on these reissues simply blows away the original releases. It makes sense that Three Imaginary Boys was released first, as it’s far different from these three simultaneously reissued albums, which form something of a trilogy (with apologies to Disintegration and Bloodflowers). Though Smith’s songwriting was still evolving and would only fully flower later on, The Cure solidified their sound and identity on these important early releases.
Japanese Whispers (Sire ’84) Rating: B+
The tour in support of Pornography was tension filled, culminating with a physical fight between Smith and Gallup and Gallup's departure from the band soon thereafter. Smith himself seemed to sour on The Cure, playing guitar with Siouxsie and the Banshees and forming a side project with Banshees guitarist Steve Severin called The Glove (both side outlets released an album in 1983, Hyena and Blue Sunshine, respectively). However, Smith and Tolhurst did manage three significant singles in '82-'83, all collected along with their associated b-sides on Japanese Whispers, an 8-song mini-LP. After crawling through the abyss on Pornography, Smith figured to crawl his way out, but few figured he would jump out upbeat and dancing! Despite the continued presence of that damned dated clicky drum sound, the lyrically direct, supremely catchy "Let's Go To Bed" and the even sprightlier "The Lovecats" are light years removed from the gloom that permeated the band's recent projects. Hardcore fans were disappointed, naturally, but the band's fan base ultimately expanded as Robert was revealed as a risk taker who was willing to defy expectations. Then again, "Just One Kiss" and "Lament" are still atmospheric, and the guitar is still the primary instrument on "The Upstairs Room" (cool riffs, propulsive beats), unlike elsewhere, where the synthesizer seems to have become Smith's favorite toy. Fortunately, when a song is as hooky as "The Walk" this is anything but a problem, but overall the album does seem slight when compared to the super-serious platters that preceded it. That said, I'd argue that revealing a more playful side (witness the most British pronunciations ever on "The Dream") was what the doctor ordered at this point, and though I wouldn't call Japanese Whispers one of their more significant albums ("Speak My Language" sounds almost like a children's ditty), it is among The Cure’s most fun and atypical. Note: Truth be told I rarely listen to this album since its best songs (“Let’s Go To Bed,” “The Lovecats,” and “The Walk”) also appear on Staring At The Sea.
The Head On The Door (Elektra ’85) Rating: A-
With Tolhurst now on keyboards and enlisting drummer Andy Anderson and Paul Thornalley on bass, The Cure released The Top in 1984. Alas, aside from another ebullient single in “The Caterpillar” it was a forgettable album (at least that’s what everybody says; I’ve never heard it), and Anderson and Thornalley were dispatched, replaced by Porl Thompson (guitar/keyboards), Boris Williams (drums), and a returning Gallup (bass) for The Head On The Door. With his best band to date, Smith ditched all side projects and rededicated himself to The Cure, releasing a good riff record with subtly insistent grooves on which his talented bandmates’ interplay is prominent (songs such as "Push" and "Sinking" are largely instrumental). And though lines like “tell me who doesn’t love what can never come back, you can never forget how it used to feel” sees Smith’s worldview as tragically haunted as ever, his pop sensibilities flower brilliantly on “In Between Days” and “Close To Me” (though the latter song’s horn heavy single version is even better), two of their best hit singles that helped The Cure reach a broader mainstream audience beyond the hardcore cult who already worshipped them. “In Between Days” has an absolutely gorgeous guitar tone supported by a lush overall sound and an affecting Smith vocal, while “Close To Me” opens with dance beats and bass but it is the flawlessly beautiful keyboard melody, tinkly piano, and fluttering flute parts that really makes it such a standout (even without the horns). Indeed, despite some typically dark and dreary musical journeys, the best songs on this album are musically vibrant, as Smith demonstrates an uncanny knack for stringing together guitar chords that are perfectly pretty and catchy, while Tolhurst’s keyboards also provide many a song’s most memorable moment. “Six Different Ways,” “Push,” and “A Night Like This” are all top shelf Cure marked by cute flute (or are those keyboards?), memorable riffs, and even a sax solo, respectively. Elsewhere, I like the riff-y guitar playing on “Screw,” while atmospheric tracks such as “Kyoto Song” and “Sinking” see The Cure successfully doing what they do (what they used to almost exclusively do), though neither is all that memorable, comparatively speaking. Then again, the keyboard hook on “Kyoto Song” is subtle, but it is there, and the classic, lushly layered Cure sound on "Sinking" calmly brings the album to an enjoyably sedate end. Meanwhile, considerably different are "The Blood" and “The Baby Screams,” which are all about their good grooves; I especially like the vigorously strummed, downright exotic Spanish guitar on “The Blood,” though I'm less thrilled about its repetitive vocals and religious lyrics. As for the rest of the lyrics, by and large Smith the cad laments about all the different ways he’s blown it relationship-wise, but thankfully Smith is able to channel his failings and regrets into consistently compelling music. This strong transitional album delivered a nice mix of old styled dirges along with a more pop oriented approach, with substantial commercial success being the well-deserved end result; the next several studio long players would only improve on the formula (and the success).
Staring At The Sea: The Singles (Elektra ‘86) Rating: A
This roller coaster ride jumps from edgy post-punk to gloomy gothic and onto delectable pop over the course of seventeen songs, making it a great introduction to the decidedly depressing world of Robert Smith and company. And though it lacks the unity of the band’s individual albums, this compilation collects all of The Cure's biggest (and basically best) songs to date in chronological order, in the process revealing the different phases of a brilliant singles band. With Smith’s vampiric look and teased hair he was destined to dominate the band, and his angsty sob is what makes all of these tracks of a piece. Sparse early songs like “Killing An Arab,” "10:15 Saturday Night," “Boys Don’t Cry,” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” have a sharp guitar thrust that lasts for the first several tracks, before atmospheric keyboards and lushly layered guitar parts became a bigger part of the group’s dirgey sound on songs such as "A Forest," "Play For Today," "Primary," "Other Voices," and "Charlotte Sometimes." After much membership turnover, later tracks like “The Lovecats,” “The Caterpillar,” “In Between Days,” and “Close To Me” (this compilation includes the definitive single version) contain sprightly keyboards, catchy guitar melodies, and even sterling horn arrangements that mesh together to create some truly memorable (and original) oddball pop songs that are tremendous fun despite their despairing lyrics. Though not every single the band released is first rate, the majority of them are excellent, and Staring At The Sea: The Singles shows off the gradual evolution of the Cure until 1985, by which time they were poised to become stadium filling superstars. This sampler album tells their story up until this point (consider it their Cliff Notes from 1979-1985), and complications from being a compilation aside (i.e. it suffers from a lack of cohesion), it remains one of their most consistently listenable and enjoyable albums ever.
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Elektra ‘87) Rating: A-
This star making, sprawling, absolutely exhausting double LP (now a single cd) can be tedious and is far too long, but it’s also often brilliant and contains several of The Cure’s very best songs. No Cure album casts nearly as wide a net as this one, and as such Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is both a great starting point for novices and the quintessential Cure album. It starts off surprisingly with “The Kiss,” an exciting wah wah driven guitar extravaganza that builds up to an impressive momentum and shows Smith and Thompson to be more than able guitar heroes. Smith's angry vocals (including a rare f-bomb) don't even come in until 3:50, and indeed many of the songs here start slowly with long instrumental buildups. Demonstrating the wide range of the album, “Catch," a charmingly innocent, lovely little pop ditty, couldn't be any more different from "The Kiss," while the churning, danceable, intense rocker "Torture" falls somewhere in between. Rock, pop, dirge-like numbers, perfect pop ditties, slow, fast, pretty, ugly - you name it, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me has it. A song such as "All I Want" has harsh guitars and lush keyboards, and though not every experiment here works, there's little of what I would call obvious filler, either, though the album tends to drag towards the end, perhaps in part 'cause at this point I'm simply overwhelmed by the sheer size and ambition of the thing. Needless to say, this could've been a terrific single album, but in all fairness even the lesser songs here are usually at least interesting, even "The Snakepit," at least at first as it drags on for 7 seemingly interminable minutes. As for the other highlights, "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep" is all about its haunting sitar and dirge-like atmosphere (a Cure specialty, needless to say), "Why Can't I Be You" is a catchy, up-tempo, hyper, horn-heavy dance tune, "How Beautiful You Are" is an affecting up-tempo number with a nice piano/violin-aided melody, "Hot Hot Hot!!!" is a sparse, funky tune with some cool trumpet riffs, "One More Time" is a gorgeously dreamy, almost ambient set piece, and "The Perfect Girl" is yet another delectable slice of pure pop. Elsewhere, an impressive array of sounds marks "Like Cockatoos," which features an acoustic guitar and God knows what else, while big tribal drums (which no longer sound trapped in the '80s) and saxophone give "Icing Sugar" its unique flavor. Last but certainly not least, the sublime "Just Like Heaven" is arguably the all-time Cure song; with lush synths, gorgeous guitar, and an impeccable melody and vocal, this classic song is absolutely flawless, period. This album is far from flawless (for one thing, Smith’s whiny voice will never sit well with some people), but it is fascinating and at its best is often quite stunning.
Disintegration (Elektra ‘89) Rating: A
After trying out everything on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Robert Smith decided to do the polar opposite on Disintegration, which maintains a singularly cohesive mood throughout. What both albums have in common is that this is another double album (on vinyl) that’s too long (p.s. this has been the case with every Cure album since), maybe even more so in this case since these songs all tread within the same style, with lush synthesizer washes, big doomy drumbeats, and layers and layers of gorgeously intertwining guitars meshing with Smith’s weepily intense vocal delivery. It’s a good thing that most of the coldly beautiful music here is so amazing, and in many ways Disintegration stands as the band’s masterpiece (albeit a flawed one), a brilliantly atmospheric, utterly mesmerizing mope rock landmark that's perfect for a lazy day. These melodies are trance inducing, as the songs slowly take their own sweet time (it’s not uncommon for Smith’s vocals to enter only after along instrumental introduction), allowing their haunting yet soothing soundscapes to mysteriously swirl in mournful ways. Indeed, many of these songs crawl along well past the five-minute mark, but what songs! “Pictures Of You” is only one of my all-time favorites, with its hypnotic groove, gorgeously encircling guitars, and sad lyrics that portray an all-encompassing sense of loss. Call me a wimp, but more than once has this song reduced me to near tears, so sad is its tale and so perfect the musical accompaniment, while “Lovesong,” written by Smith as a wedding present to his wife, became a surprise #2 smash, despite sounding as moody and depressing as everything else surrounding it! The gorgeously sumptuous album opener “Plainsong,” the warmly atmospheric "Closedown," the hooky "Lullaby," the intensely rocking “Fascination Street” (another stunning single), the mysterious, haunting "Prayers For Rain," and the funereal "The Same Deep Waters As You" (music to be played at 3A.M. or at a wake) are among the other wonderfully seductive tunes that compelled the South Park creators to famously proclaim this "the greatest album ever." Such hyperbole aside, it does have some lulls, as its almost ambient reliance on atmosphere makes it a "mood album" that sometimes works better as background music than when listened to attentively. Still, complaining about an occasional lack of hooks and the album's overly long length seems like nitpicking given the high overall quality of the music, as Robert Smith and company continue to produce major work. Though they’ve yet to be accorded the proper respect for which they are due, I for one have no problems in claiming that The Cure are a great band, and Smith himself felt that Disintegration "was the end of the golden period." Note: This is supposedly a sequel of sorts to Pornography, but I find this addictively depressing album to be uniquely its own entity, even within The Cure's singular catalogue.
Mixed Up (Elektra ‘90) Rating: B-
In what was then a ballsy and much-criticized (among the gloom-mongers dressed in black, anyway) move, the band then released Mixed Up, which reconfigured songs from Seventeen Seconds (“A Forest,” obviously), The Top (“The Caterpillar,” obviously), The Head On The Door (the three singles, obviously), Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (“Hot Hot Hot,” perhaps not so obviously), and Disintegration (the four best known songs, obviously) for the dancefloor, while also adding a new song, “Never Enough.” Remix albums, most of which I have little use for, are all too common today (it’s an easy way to make a quick buck, basically), but back then it was pretty unique for a rock band to put out a 73-minute remix album. Basically, on these elongated songs the band emphasize the beat, loop lots of keyboards, cut down on the guitars, and add extra electronic effects, thereby creating an alternate world of The Cure that isn’t radically different but which is interesting enough in its different-ness. The differences are easy enough to spot; right away “Lullaby (Extended Mix)” adds three minutes to the original, while the main keyboard riff of “The Walk (Everything Mix)” takes two and a half minutes to initially introduce itself. Bigshot producers Paul Oakenfold and William Orbit take apart “Close To Me (Closer Mix)” and “In Between Days (Shiver Mix),” respectively, though both pale beside the best previous versions, it should be noted (and don’t ask me the difference between an everything mix and an extended mix and a shiver mix, etc.). In general, I prefer the originals of the vast majority of these songs, sometimes significantly so, and I’d hardly call this an essential album for anyone with a halfway decent Cure collection. Still, in retrospect this album does deserve some credit for popularizing the remix album, as Puff Daddy and other hacks of his ilk owe a debt to Smith that they probably don’t even realize. One of the ‘90s more annoying trends, perhaps, but one that The Cure nevertheless helped spearhead with the surprising popularity of this release.
Wish (Elektra ‘92) Rating: A
With apologies to Robert Smith, I'd say that Wish, which I’d argue is the band’s most underrated and second best proper album, "was the end of the golden period." Though it doesn't offer anything especially new and merely consolidates previous strengths, Wish goes from strength to strength as The Cure delivered another seriously great if undeniably flawed album. Like the two previous proper albums there’s an A+ caliber masterpiece in here somewhere had the band edited things down a bit. That said, there are quite a few flat-out great songs on the album, including deliciously depressing gloomfests such as “Apart” and “A Letter To Elise,” devastating paeans of regret on which Smith sounds as sad as humanly possible and the music matches him every step of the way (we’ll overlook that “Elise” is basically a rewrite of “Pictures Of You” since it’s so great). He hasn’t totally given up hope, however, as proven by lines like “lets get happy” ("Doing The Unstuck") and positively ebullient songs such as “Friday I’m In Love,” which along with “High” constitute radiant pure pop peaks (both were hits), led as usual by their trademark gorgeous guitars. By contrast, “Trust” and “To Wish Impossible Things” sport beautifully sorrowful, almost ambient melodies, while “End” ends things with a powerful buildup as Smith pleads “please stop loving me!” Geez, this guy sure doesn’t stay happy for long, and indeed Wish contains some of the happiest and saddest songs of Smith’s career. It has a nice mix of rockers and ballads as well, and wonderfully edgy, intense rockers like “Open,” “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea,” and “Cut” demonstrate that, despite their lush sound, The Cure are first and foremost a guitar band. The band’s attempt at variety was appreciated after the one-dimensional offerings of Disintegration and Mixed Up, and though in many ways Wish was “just another Cure album,” it’s still one of the very best Cure albums when judged solely on its own merits. Alas, the recording sessions were difficult and the cost of completing it was great; when group dictator Robert Smith was ready to record his next album he found himself a bandleader without a band!
Wild Mood Swings (Elektra ’96) Rating: C+
After not one but two live albums, Show and Paris (both 1993), neither of which I have but neither of which are supposed to be essential (you can't layer together 50 guitars onstage, after all), a reconfigured Cure (Simon Gallup, bass; Perry Bamonte, guitars and 6-string bass; Robert O’Donnell, keyboards; Jason Cooper, drums and percussion) released Wild Mood Swings, which was widely criticized by reviewers and longtime fans. And it is their weakest album in some time; though its upbeat cadences and varied musical textures are definitely different, the album lacks any truly great songs and suffers from a schizophrenic identity. There are only a few dense, depressing songs in the classic Cure tradition (and most of those are rather lackluster), several of its songs try to mine similar territory already visited (“Want” = “The Kiss,” “Mint Car” = “Friday I’m In Love,” “Return” = “Hot Hot Hot!!!”), and the album is also predictably way too long. In short, these messy, hook-less (odd given the album’s more upbeat nature and apparent commercial aspirations) songs simply aren’t especially memorable on the whole. Smith tries, adding a more varied vocal delivery (though his hyper antics often backfire, while his vampiric croon on “Club America” is a real head scratcher) and lots of strings and horns, and the album has its share of merely good songs, including poppier numbers like “Strange Attraction,” “Round & Round & Round,” and “Gone!,” as well as “Want” (retread or not, I like its intensity and loud guitars). Although the album as a whole is uncharacteristically upbeat, lines like “but I’m still not sure what’s going on, and I can’t help feeling something’s wrong” and “I’m sick of it all” show that Smith hasn’t quite mastered this happiness thing just yet, which is generally a good thing where his music is concerned. As a result, I'm not ready to dismiss Smith or his new band just yet, but on this disjointed album he certainly lacked direction, sales plummeting as a result (the four year wait between studio albums didn’t help) as even longtime diehards were disappointed.
Galore: The Singles 1987-1997 (Elektra ‘97) Rating: B+
Considering that The Cure is such a great singles band, and that Staring At The Sea had worked so splendidly, I was surprised to find that I enjoy listening to all of the band’s individual studio albums from this period (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me through Wild Mood Swings) better than this singles compilation (excepting Wild Mood Swings, of course). This is due to a few reasons. First of all, despite their singles knack, The Cure have always been album oriented artists, and each of their albums from this period have distinct characteristics that are lost when simply sampled from. Of course, this was also the case on Staring At The Sea, but the individual albums from that early period were less essential, and the non-album tracks (including the otherwise hard-to-find Japanese Whispers tracks - sorry, I forgot to mention that Japanese Whispers is only available in the U.S. as an import) and single versions improved the album immensely. Quite the contrary, “Pictures Of You,” “Fascination Street,” and “A Letter To Elise” are featured here in inferior edited versions compared to their full-length album counterparts. Lastly, some of the selections are questionable (“Never Enough,” "The 13th"), and the new song, “Wrong Number,” is hardly worth the price of admission since it annoyingly jumps on the electronica bandwagon (remember in 1997 when you couldn't look at a music magazine without seeing The Prodigy's Keith Flint's ugly mug on the cover?), though it's a decent enough effort in that vein. Needless to say, this chronologically sequenced collection dips considerably towards the end when it gets to the Wild Mood Swings songs, but it’s hard to quibble too much with an album that has songs as outstanding as “Just Like Heaven,” “Catch,” “Lovesong,” “High,” and “Friday I’m In Love.” However, it’s also hard not to notice that these songs sound out of place here.
Bloodflowers (Elektra ‘00) Rating: B+
Robert Smith's favorite Cure album was billed as the third installment in the Pornography/Disintegration trilogy, though as previously mentioned I feel that you could link several of their other albums as well. Besides, none of that really matters anyway, does it? What does matter is that this is another very good (but not great) Cure album that does indeed most closely resemble Disintegration with its depressing, leisurely unfolding songs and reliance on mood/atmosphere over individual songs. There are no obvious classics a la "Pictures Of You," "Lovesong," or "Fascination Street" here, though, nor is there anything (stylistically speaking) that the band hasn't already done before. Then again, after the all-over-the-place failure that was Wild Mood Swings there's something to be said for sticking to your (gloomy) strengths, and like every Cure album this one does have uniquely identifiable characteristics. As a general rule, the album contains more acoustic guitars and lighter drums, and songs such as "Out Of This World," "The Last Day Of Summer," "The Loudest Song" (which isn't), and the title track are among their most dreamy to date. Elsewhere, the 11-minute "Watching Me Fall" and the merely 7+-minute "39" are the albums most epic, intense, and rocking songs, with Robert really letting loose on vocals, while "Maybe Someday" is perhaps the album's most affecting number. On this song and others Smith sounds weary, resigned, and I suppose he was (too tired to pen any snappy choruses, in any event; "Where The Birds Always Sing," with its hooky riffs and prototypically sumptuous synths, and the comparatively short (3:43) "There is No If..." are arguably the album's most tuneful tracks), as chunks of the album stroll right on by without leaving much of an impression. It's never unpleasant even if sometimes it's rather boring, as many of these songs and the hour-long album itself could've benefited from a bit of editing. These criticisms aside, I do want to reiterate that this is a very good Cure album, as few groups do densely layered, dirge-like atmospherics quite like The Cure. Indeed, when taken as a whole, Bloodflowers weaves a rather intoxicating spell, and though lines like "but the fire is almost out, and there's nothing left to burn" left many wondering whether this would be the last Cure album (fueled in part by Smith's own speculation that every recent Cure album would be his last), another one would be welcome by me, even if he's basically just repeating himself at this point. After all, this album may sound like one long song, but it's a damn good song, so if The Cure formula still works why not continue to use it? Note: A single cd, career encompassing Greatest Hits album was released in 2001. Curiously, no Bloodflowers tracks made the cut, and personally I feel that, given the existence of Staring At The Sea and Galore, this collection would’ve been more warranted had a more comprehensive double disc set been issued.
The Cure (Geffen Records ‘04) Rating: B+
With Cure influenced bands like Interpol and The Rapture being all the rage in recent years, it made sense that elder statesman Robert Smith and company would come back to try to show the kiddies how it's done. Teaming with nu metal producer Ross Robinson (Korn, Limp Bizkit), this is (unsurprisingly) the loudest, most aggressive Cure album in ages, though (unsurprisingly) there are poppier songs as well. The album has few ballads, keyboards, or truly memorable songs, as loud churning guitars and Smith's often-shouted vocals (which are way up in the mix) are the order of the day. Some of these songs are overly repetitive and at times seem like parodies, and this certainly isn't Smith's deepest batch of lyrics (typical examples: "I never meant to let you go," "I don't want you anywhere near me"), but for the first time in awhile the band's energized music is genuinely exciting. I may not like the repetitive lyrics ("I can't find myself") or whiny sentiments of "Lost," but I love the song's intensity and anger, and the even harder rocking "Labyrinth" actually ups the ante. Other angry rants include "Us Or Them," a rather annoying George W. Bush basher, "Never" ("she will never be the one for me...she will never be enough!"), and "The Promise," a 10+-minute album closer with lotsa wah wah guitar, while more melodic, poppy fare comes in the form of "The End Of The World" (not that you'd know it by the song title), "Alt.End" (stupid song title, good song whose "I don't want another go around, I want this to be the end" again hinted that this album would be The Cure's last), "(I Don't Know What's Going) On...," (where poor Robert seems hopelessly confused) and "Taking Off" (where I welcome the return of those lush, sumptuous synths). Only "Anniversary" and maybe one or two others could be described as the "moody dirge" type of song that marked Bloodflowers, and as such this album qualifies as one of the band's least depressing endeavors. Guess the band were too busy rocking out to be depressed, and I'm so busy enjoying them rocking out that I can overlook Smith's by-the-numbers lyrics, at times grating vocals, and the fact that I'd be hard pressed to remember many of these songs once the album is done playing. Much like current U2, this more-than-serviceable if not exactly ground breaking product is more than can be reasonably expected after 25 years of fairly consistent (and often outstanding) quality. Musically speaking, there's precious little resting on laurels here; long may The Cure run.
4:13 Dream (Geffen Records ‘08) Rating: B
O'Donnell and Bamonte are gone and Porl Thompson (who had provided many great guitar moments for the band) is back, plus the band are again recording for Geffen Records rather than their longtime label, Elektra. None of which matters all that much in the grand scheme of things; so long as Robert Smith is around, you pretty much know what to expect from a Cure album at this point, and that's both good and bad. As the rest of these Cure reviews makes clear, I'm a fan of the band and at least like damn near everything they do, but there's no getting around the fact that parts of this album sound a little too familiar, or that on the whole it lacks great songs or distinctive characteristics like the epic dirge-fest Bloodflowers or their surprisingly aggressive last album. Of course, this being a Cure album, there are some songs, including melodic pop rockers such as "The Only One," "The Perfect Boy," and "This. Here and Now. With You," but there's a fair amount of filler as well. "Sirensong" is short, quiet, and forgettable, while "The Real Snow White" is rather loud but still kinda comes and goes. "The Scream" and "It's Over" end the album with a pair of hard rocking but hardly focused rockers, while intense guitar heroics prop up otherwise skippable tracks such as "Freakshow" and "Switch." Even some of the better songs are seriously flawed, the epic opener "Underneath the Stars" and "The Hungry Ghost" too closely recalling Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer" and Ride's "Vapour Trail," respectively. These are still solid songs, however, as is "The Reasons Why," which delivers melodic mid-tempo pop rock along with the album's most quotable lyric ("I don't want to bring you down about my suicide"), and "Sleep When I'm Dead," which has a good funky wah wah-ed groove, strings that add atmosphere, and more quote-worthy lyrics that Warren Zevon would approve of. So, there's a fair amount to like about this album, especially if you're new to The Cure and therefore won't be bothered as much by the band's recycling (for example, "The Only One" brings "Just Like Heaven" to mind). It's just that the album is more hook free and muddled than I'd like, and as such I’ve come to consider it a lesser Cure album that should only be obtained after many of the others reviewed on this page.
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