Men in Black
Smith's secret to maintaining his passionate following is that he is, himself, the Cure's most fervent cultist; at every opportunity, he rewards the faithful. He apparently believes (as do the most hardcore Cure fans) that the three pillars of the band's discography are Pornography (1982), Disintegration (1989) and Bloodflowers (2000): their darkest, most difficult albums. (On a 2002 tour, they performed all three in their entirety, separated by intermissions.) I'd agree on Pornography and Disintegration (though the latter for its breakthrough American hit "Lovesong," rather than for its lugubrious drama), and demur on the uneven Bloodflowers, on which the romantic, quasi-solipsistic teenager realizes he's pushing 40 and can't make a career out of being bummed out anymore.
"I genuinely felt that I wasn't going to be alive for much longer, and I tried pretty hard to make this feeling come true," Smith comments in Join the Dots' liner notes about the band's 1981-82 period. No kidding. Pornography is, for the most part, a suicide note of an album; it gets blacker and blacker for forty minutes until, at the very end, Smith can be heard through an ocean of murk, screaming, "I must fight this sickness/Find a cure."
Apparently, he did. Six months later, the Cure emerged from their Young Werther period with a relatively sunny little synth-pop single, "Let's Go to Bed," not a come-on but a head game: "I don't want it if you don't/And I won't say it if you don't say it first." It became an early MTV favorite and began a trail of American alternative rock hits that eventually led to their best and bestselling album, the multiplatinum collection variously known as Standing on a Beach and Staring at the Sea.
Although the Pornography/Disintegration/Bloodflowers partisans would hesitate to admit it, the 1986 hits collection is the real cornerstone of the Cure's career. (Smith's dismissal: "People who wouldn't buy the rest of our albums because they think we might be too difficult for them bought that.") Both titles are phrases from their first single, 1978's "Killing an Arab," a taut little meditation on a scene from Albert Camus's The Stranger. Staring at the Sea was the CD; one version of Standing on a Beach was the LP. The version every self-respecting disaffected American teenager in 1986 bought, though, was the other one: the cassette.
Standing on a Beach, the tape, had the LP's contents (all the hits!) on one side; if you turned it over, you heard a dozen B-sides. For those who are too young or too old to remember that particular moment in pop history, the practice among the most creatively fertile bands in the 1980s was to release a steady trickle of singles, a few every year. They'd usually be taken from albums, but on the B-side of the vinyl single there'd be an otherwise unavailable treat for fans: an odd little experiment, a live recording, a song that hadn't fit on the album. The Cure had some great ones, and the second side of the Beach tape included most of their best throwaways: a feral slow-motion glide called "New Day," whose title Smith gargle-screams like it's being tortured out of him, the claustrophobic/homoerotic synth-pop blurt "A Man Inside My Mouth," a punk song called "I'm Cold" with its vocal smeared across the mix like a bug on a windshield.
With the impending obsolescence of the cassette format, and the mid-30s consumer power of those 1986 teenagers, Join the Dots has become economically inevitable. Side two of the Beach tape is now the core of its first disc, and the other three discs extend its trajectory through the recent past--more B-sides, then "bonus tracks" from CD singles after seven- and twelve-inch vinyl stopped being a viable commercial medium in the early 1990s, and finally alternate mixes to pad out the collection. It would be hard to argue that many of these seventy songs are among the Cure's major work. That's sort of the point.