Men in Black
Several generations of doomy, bookish youth have grown up listening to the Cure. Lead singer Robert Smith has the worldview of a bummed-out, romantic, quasi-solipsistic teenager, and he has expressed it magisterially for a quarter-century, in a voice unlike any other pop star's: less singing than sobbing on key. His voice is quavering and nasal; it seems to be only tenuously connected to pitch--there's a permanent lump in his throat--until you notice how acrobatic it is. He can leap up into a whooping falsetto and make it sound like his voice is just cracking, or give the impression that he's groaning to himself under his breath, and half-incidentally finessing a tune in the process. And his persona--literate, un-macho and three parts despondent to one part manically goofy--has become a subcultural archetype. For anyone who's belonged to the goth subculture anytime since the mid-1980s, liking the Cure has been de rigueur, and Smith's baggy all-black outfits and eyeliner are the scene's official uniform.
Is it possible for a group that sells millions of albums to be a cult band? The Cure act like it, and so does their audience, as large as it's gotten. The fans in the arena believe they have a shared, peculiar taste the rest of the world will never understand, and the Cure cult is as devoted as any in popular music. A few years ago, a couple of Argentine fans assembled Concise Pink Pig Atlas: The Whole Cure in the Mirror--a fourteen-CD set on which Cure devotees around the world recorded their (adoring, amateurish) versions of every song Smith has ever written--and presented it as a thank-you gift to every member of the band, past and present.
Now the Cure themselves have released a four-CD set (on what appears to be the occasion of a contractual obligation) called Join the Dots: B-Sides & Rarities 1978-2001 (The Fiction Years). ("Fiction" is the British label that's been putting out their records since they were teenagers in Crawley, Sussex.) There's certainly the scent of contract-filler about it; in the past fourteen years, the Cure have managed to complete only three new studio albums, although they've marked time with a remix collection, three live albums, their second and third greatest-hits discs and now this box of ephemera--a comprehensive history of the band, minus all of its landmarks.
Smith has been the only constant member of the Cure--occasionally their only member, period--and his voice has been the only unvarying element of their sound. (Other musicians have appeared with him in videos and on stage, sometimes for years on end, but nobody can remember what any of them look like.) His lyrics, on the other hand, are remarkably consistent in tone and diction. Four words are the cardinal points of Smith's compass: "girl," "dream," "mouth" and "never." They appear again and again in his songs, sung with special relish, bent into new shapes every time.
"Girl": The object of desire, the reification of everything that is longed for and can't be had. "The girl was never there/It's always the same/I'm running towards nothing/Again and again and again," he sings in "A Forest," the Cure's signature song. The way he regards the "girl" is objectification, for sure, but of a strange kind: The world outside the self and the beloved rarely appear at all in Smith's lyrics, and when he addresses a "you," it's usually implicit that the person he's speaking to isn't supposed to hear him. "You're just an object in my eyes," he sneered on an early, punk-era song. Well, all right, then.
"Dream": Smith invokes dreams (and waking up) habitually, although rarely as a psychological reinterpretation of real life. For him, dreaming and waking mean passing from one mode of perception to another, with little sense that one is more real than the other. "If only I was sure/That my head on the door was a dream," he sings in what's otherwise a relatively cheerful love song, "Close to Me." Join the Dots alone includes songs called "The Dream," "A Japanese Dream" and "A Pink Dream."
"Mouth": Not the seat of language, in Cure songs, but the consuming, sexual part of the physical self. The classic form of Smith's stage makeup centers on a grotesque smear of lipstick across his mouth as much as on the immense shock of black hair radiating out from his head. His mouth-images are accordingly gruesome and violent: "A hand in my mouth/A life spills into the flowers"; "Cut the conversation/Just open your mouth"; "Your tongue is like poison/So swollen it fills up my mouth."
"Never": For Smith, as a professional pop existentialist, the sensory world is one big denial--a place that presents mirages of happiness and snatches them away. "I will never be clean again," he sang in 1982; "you make me feel like I am clean again," he sang in 1989 (and notice that's not "you make me clean again"). "I'll never understand," "I'll never feel again," "I never thought this day would end," "I'll never say those things to you again." He sings "never" the way Joey Ramone sang "wanna"--that little word implies an entire philosophy of being.