Men in Black

Men in Black

Several generations of doomy, bookish youth have grown up listening to the Cure.


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.

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.

If you are a casual admirer of a band (or, for that matter, of any kind of artist), the major works are quite enough. If you’re a serious fan, though, and especially if you’re a cultist, throwaways and ephemera become enormously more important: They flesh out the image of the artist in your mind, and inform your understanding of the major work. Smith has kept the extra stuff flowing for twenty-five years, in a way that makes it clear that, as much as he enjoys it himself, it’s not to be evaluated by exactly the same metrics as his “real” records. (As excessive as nearly five hours of Join the Dots seems, there’s plenty of stuff that wasn’t included here.)

The rule of diminishing returns has set in as the Cure’s cult has grown and Smith has gotten locked into his lipsticked, fright-wigged persona. At some point, his gift for sharply snaking melodies wriggled away from him–probably around the same time that the Cure’s songs stopped being compact and hook-driven and started being based on tedious midtempo rambles. The third and dullest disc of Join the Dots has exactly two memorable tunes, and they’re both covers: Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” (“We were trying to do something that was very grand,” Smith admits of “Dredd Song” in the booklet, “but it somehow turned into something very grandiose.” So why bother re-releasing it, then?) Most of the final disc meanders badly, too, and half of its songs are alternate versions of album tracks (including a new and annoyingly pointless remake of “A Forest”).

Still, even on autopilot, the Cure sometimes manage to get over by the sheer force of their style. Join the Dots‘ second disc includes an audacious joke: three consecutive versions, from 1990, of the Doors’ rather un-Cure-like “Hello I Love You.” The first is in the slowest of their standard modes: a lotus-eater’s tempo, Smith’s moan echoing backward and forward so that the H in “hello” is aspirated for a few moments before it appears, quilt-thick keyboards droning away. The second returns to the brisk snap of their hits of that period, and the whole band perks up; Smith is playful, scatting a little at the beginning, singing the words as if he’s giggling and whimpering at the same time. The third is a ten-second punk-rock throwaway, included for the sake of excess. None of them are first-rank Cure, but as an illustration of how the band can switch on multiple kinds of Cure-ness at will, they’re fascinating, and they’re a prize for the faithful. That’s the mark of a true cult artist: someone who can serve up leftovers and get away with calling it a feast.

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