It’s easy to write off The Cure as having contributed nothing to the world beyond a few novelty pop hits and the enduring tedium of mall-goth culture. Robert Smith and the boys would perhaps be more firmly ensconced in the pantheon of rock greats if they’d ever tried to produce a Kid A-style avant garde masterpiece. After all, even the Stones had a go, with Their Satanic Majesties Request!
Well, hang on their a second – none of this is entirely fair! First of all, 1984’s The Top could easily be said to represent an attempt at Sgt. Pepper-style technicolour psychedelia. Regarded by some Cure fans to be the band’s only truly bad album, it was – in a very real sense – the Satanic Majesties of the 80s. Then there’s the much more highly regarded Pornography, on which sheer angst alone pushed the band to the brink of distraction. Or how about that much-loved stadium doom epic Disintegration?
We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, though. The thing is, no matter how strung-out, expressionistic or colourful The Cure’s music got, it was always firmly rooted in guitar-based pop. In fact, that’s exactly what made The Cure so great! Smith managed to produce immersive masterpieces of nightmarish angst and dreamlike beauty without ever deviating much from the instantaneous effectiveness of the three-minute pop song. Even when drenched in FX, these tunes were never cheaply impressionistic – they were always painfully vivid and often unforgettably catchy.
On the band’s second album, Seventeen Seconds, they managed to infuse the skeletal new wave of early singles like “Boys Don’t Cry” with a genuinely spooky ambiance, without actually changing anything terribly obvious. Later albums were heavier on the flanged basslines, delay drenched guitars and soundscapey synths but they never quite surpassed the magnificent nocturnal focus of Seventeen Seconds.
The Cure – “Play for Today”
The Cure – “In Your House”
Seventeen Seconds was the first in a loose trilogy of albums that defined The Cure’s artistic zenith. Glenn Ponda has already written a brilliant post about these albums but this here blog can’t help adding its two cents.
Faith, the trilogy’s second album might be the most “complete” album in The Cure’s discography. It marks a transitional period between the bare-bones early material and the fleshed-out later albums. It’s also arguably the band’s most genuinely bleak and effectively gothy record.
The Cure – “All Cats Are Grey”
The Cure – “The Drowning Man”
Which brings us back to Pornography, very commonly considered to be the great Cure album. It certainly has the greatest claim to being an attempted avant garde classic – the band’s proto-dreampop formula really does strain under the shear weight of angst and self-loathing unleashed on Pornography. The album’s closing title track is mixed in such a way that everything seems to be in utterly the wrong place. A mood of alienation and impending oblivion looms large throughout.
The Cure – “One Hundred Years”
The Cure – “Siamese Twins”
Presumably, the self-destructively drug-drenched horror of Pornography couldn’t be sustained without serious damage to the band’s mental health and commercial prospects. For the rest of the 80s, The Cure’s albums became less one-dimensionally bleak – mixing widescreen goth rock with jaunty novelty tunes and all points in between. In the process, the band became a massive hit with teenage outsiders, both downcast and quirky (and both!) So, while Smith and co. may not have enjoyed quite the critical reputation they deserved, they did end up playing to stadium’s full of truly devoted fans, to whom they meant the world.
The high-point of this period was 1989’s Disintegration. Overlong and overwrought, Disintegration probably doesn’t quite deserve the reputation it has but it is, somehow, The Cure in excelsus. Currently available in a rather deluxe 2LP edition, it’s as good a place to start as any.