June 2, 1989
The Cure offer a remedy for pop elitism
For a decade now, singer and songwriter Robert Smith has led his odd band of changing sidemen called the Cure. They've never cared whether you have a nice day. Yet they're different from no-account British groups who feed off simple hate. It's not that generosity is out of
the question for the Cure; it's just that glad tidings don't occasion their music. Romantic conflict does, and for Smith it's an unending preoccupation.
In the title song of Disintegration (Elektra), the Cure's impressive new release, a man leaves his wife and children for a younger woman. You wouldn't want the tune to be any longer, yet at a shade over eight minutes, it offers hard-won individualism accessible to anyone who'd give the music a shot -- a rock masterwork of dramatic narration torn
from the mind of a man who's not only distraught but inarticulate to start with. Disintegration is the song of a father and husband, a man who wails But I never said I'd stay to the end, who fears that the judge will deny him his kids on the weekends.
The performance, in which Smith reels from the combined onslaught of current recognitions and memories of happier photographs and pop songs past, is exhilarating: a voice that threatens never to be able to communicate with anyone in fact does. During the '70s, when musicians like Steely Dan, Warren Zevon, and David Bowie offered unusual points
of view to listeners who couldn't possibly have shared them, this kind of achievement wasn't so notable. But '80s rock has not been about individualism rendered in personal ways. With the exception of music video, which has sometimes pursued quirkiness to a fault, the decade
has prized pop-musical accessibility (Michael Jackson's Thriller) and lyric straightforwardness (Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA).
These twin approaches re-enshrine the founding rock ideal of singer and song meshing with an audience -- performances by and about us, and not too much work to digest. They have set up an alliance between '80s and '60s rock: the decade in between has just about disappeared.
Musicians failing to deal with this development -- especially those who cling to the tenets of punk, that adventurous and elitist and much analyzed moment of the '70s -- have accepted cult status for their efforts at popular music. It's why, after early promise, Elvis
Costello's work now seems confused and stunted to many. It's also one reason the Cure, right now, are fascinating.
Along with Smith, the current line-up includes bassist-keyboardist Simon Gallup, drummer Boris Williams, guitarist Porl Thompson, keyboardist Roger O'Donnell , and multi-instrumentalist Laurence Tolhurst. In their rookie years, the Cure barked out well-recorded punk 4/4, veering toward pop; eventually, Middle Eastern and Latin elements vied with the occasional strings, dance beats, horns, and
troubled black seas of minor-keyed synthesizer washes that now make up the group's catholic music. It's not that Disintegration represents their first good work. Or their oddest. In 1984, their single The Caterpillar tap-danced and finger-snapped its way across university airwaves.
Five years later, it remains as weird as rock of any
substantial appeal gets.
In 1986, the Cure's multi-platinum Standing on a Beach: The Singles put all this history into masterly perspective, from 1979's fighting trio of Killing an Arab, Boys Don't Cry, and Jumping Someone Else's Train to the samba fluff and druggy intensity of 1984's The Walk to In Between Days and Close to Me, both from 1985's The Head on the Door, the Cure's snappiest album. Throughout Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
(1987), their last album, the Cure painted with a broad brush and a killer sonic command, and they watched Why Can't I Be You? and the extraordinary Just Like Heaven become US hits, as ubiquitous in America as the work of their somewhat more emotionally varied Georgia counterparts, R.E.M.
One song on that generous, justified double recording -- a tune entitled How Beautiful You Are ... -- turned on a callow beauty who shunned a poor old man and his young charge, both awestruck by her loveliness after encountering her in the road. Another song tried to detail the emotional landscape of a couple's quarrel, but ended up
saying they were just Like Cockatoos. The surprise and rightness of an observation like that amounts to the kind of gesture that separates the men from the boys when rock of the unexpected is the name of the game.
The Cure offer an inert tune about complacency and suffocation, in the middle of Disintegration, called Prayers for Rain. Smith has an almost Hemingway-esque obsession with weather -- in Cure songs, the sun shines rarely, events often occur in fogs and winds and mists, and
Smith makes the darker or more mysterious elements into full-fledged characters. Prayers for Rain is merely a minor melodic fragment that both Smith and the synth player on the song overestimate. If the rest of Disintegration proceeded similarly, the album would be unbearable. But though the Cure here eschew the bouncier melodies and
quick tempos they've tapped before, to say that the new album restores their most ardent dirges misses the growth of the band's new music.
Instead, Disintegration retards and submerges the pop powers of the Cure's recent singles. The album's opening 20 minutes bring forth the clarity of melodies like Pictures of You and Lovesong from a constructed background of the songs Plainsong and Closedown. In context, the former burst to life like shining order emerging from
dull chaos. They couldn't be more compellingly set up, so listeners attend to the photography-versus-flesh debate of Pictures and the utopian sexual praise of Lovesong.
That is to say: listeners attend to what the songs are about. This involves the import of Smith's words, which are echoed but never snared by the textures of guitar, synth, drums, and basS. (The briary rush of Fascination Street, the current hit single, is maybe the album's best example.) Still, it's the total stress on whatever they're doing that explains why the Cure's music persuades millions
now while the work of less proficient gloom merchants does not.
Nobody, as we know, ever minds expressive discord, Virgil Thompson wrote of Bartok's string quartets in 1949. Of course, the symbol of the Cure's expressive discord is Robert Smith's grating voice -- hardly a conventionally musical instrument, but also too piercing in its tonality and too steadfast in its resolve ever to qualify as
Consumers ought to know that the Disintegration album lacks two substantial songs (Last Dance and Homesick) that the cassette and CD versions sequence in different places in their thoughtful presentation of the recording. Consumers who cherish vinyl should protest.
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