"It was originally just a comment I glibly made after a few too many beers. But it made me face up to a promise that I had made myself a long time ago; that I would change my life after 40. Much as part of me would love to continue on in this way, there are certain things in other areas of my life that make me realize that I can't. Because if I do, I'm just gonna turn into an idiot and a joke."
Robert Smith is addressing his recent statement that the Cure's new album Blood Flowers -- the band's 11th, not counting myriad compilations, live recordings and the like -- would (or at least might) be its last. After leading The World's Most Popular Cult Act through more than two decades' worth of stylistic shifts, personnel changes and tormented introspection, Smith says he's voluntarily abdicating his position and calling a halt to the band's endearingly eccentric, frequently brilliant career. Maybe.
"No one ever walks away from it, because the reasons for staying are many and attractive," says Smith, who at the moment is sporting a scruffier, more restrained variation on his trademark glam-goth look. "It's a very seductive lifestyle, but I've changed, and I don't get the same kick out of it that I used to."
The artist, who turned 40 in April, maintains that he's not abandoning music, just retreating from pop stardom. But he's been backpedaling since first announcing the Cure's immenent demise.
"I made the mistake of saying it to a couple of people and, because of the Internet primarily, it's developed into 'This is the last Cure album,' and that doesn't really sit comfortably with me. I'm more concerned with the fact that I think this is the best album we've ever done, and that it's the one I've had the most fun making. So I would hate for it to be seen as some kind of publicity thing."
If Blood Flowers really is to be the Cure's swan song, the band is definately going out on a high note. The album's nine songs rank with Smith's most affectingly personal work, their soul-baring lyrics and bittersweet soundscapes recalling the brooding intensity and desolate beauty of Pornography and Disintegration, which many Cure diehards consider to be the band's best work.
"There are a lot of fans who prefer that side of the Cure much more than the singles, and I do as well," Smith acknowledges. "I suspect that it's what people have wanted since Disintegration, and deep down it's what I wanted as well. But I always thought, better wait until the time feels right, because otherwise I would just have been doing it because people were badgering me to."
"But I worry that if people know that this is maybe the last Cure album, the songs will initially be perceived as being about me ending the band. Some of the songs, like 'Out of This World,' are genuinely about that. But I think that they also resonate on a different level and allude more to a sense of letting things go, and that's what I hope people will hear."
The Cure -- whose persistent image as tortured, dirgey gloom-mongers neglects the sharp pop instincts and self-aware irony that have consistently kept the band from self-indulgence -- has long been fraught with such contracdictions.
Smith launched the Cure in 1979 with a debut album -- titled Three Imaginary Boys overseas, Boys Don't Cry in the United States -- whose punchy post-punk pensiveness gave way to the darker, more intimate explorations of Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography. In the wake of such raw emotional purging, perhaps mainstream pop stardom was the most radical move the Cure could have made. By the end of 1982, the original band had splintered, leaving Smith to carve out an unlikely niche on the U.K. singles charts with gloriously daffy ditties like "Let's Go to Bed," "The Walk" and "The Love Cats."
After recording the muddled The Top more or less on his own, and moonlighting as guitarist with Siouxsie & the Banshees, Smith refashioned the Cure in the mid-1980s as a full-fledged working band. The Head on the Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me introduced a phantasmagorical wide-screen-pop approach to match Smith's fevered lyrical imagination, establishing the vibrant duality of wrenching angst and playful silliness that has serves the group well ever since. Those albums, and the 1986 compilation Standing on a Beach, broke the Cure commercially in the United States while establishing the visual flamboyant Smith -- pancake pallor, smeared lipstick, exploding-spider hairdo -- as a hero to alienated teens on both sides of the Atlantic.
The lushly melancholic 1989 magnum opus Disintegration raised the emotional stakes again, with Smith crafting rage, self-recrimination and the spectre of emotional meltdown into achingly beautiful songs. 1992's Wish and 1996's Wild Mood Swings further consolidated the Cure's strengths, making the most of the other band members' increasing musical input.
The current Cure lineup consists of Smith on vocals and guitar; long-serving bassist Simon Gallup, who joined for Seventeen Seconds, left after Pornography, and was coaxed back into the fold for Head on the Door; ex-roadie Perry Bamonte, who was promoted from guitar tech to keyboardist after Disintegration, before graduating to his current position as guitarist; Roger O'Donnell, who joined in 1987, left a couple of years later and returned in 1995; and drummer Jason Cooper, who joined officially after contributing to the Wild Mood Swings sessions.
One of Blood Flowers' most decisive lyrical statements -- and the one most open to misinterpretation -- is "Where the Birds Always Sing," which rejects religious dogma as a hindrance to real understanding of the human condition.
According to Smith, "'Where the Birds Always Sing' arose out of a discussion with someone who was experiencing a series of extremely terrible events, and who honestly believed, due to a religious upbringing that somehow they'd done something to deserve this. I got really upset about that, and wrote the words out of my belief that things just happen because they happen. There's no great force at work, there's no great master plan, there's nothing. I've kind of lost all my earlier desire to believe in something or to seek something. Which doesn't diminish my enjoyment of life at all, because I actually live much more for the moment than I used to."
"After writing that, I started to think about using this album to address some of these philosophical points, to try and get to the heart of some of the things that bug me. So I put a lot of things down on paper, crystallizing everything that I've worried about over the years. Some of these rants were, like, seven pages long, and some of them made very interesting reading, but as songs they didn't really work. Whereas, 'Out of This World' actually moves people, because it's so simple and ordinary."
One of Blood Flowers' most nakedly revealing numbers is "39," on which Smith convincingly confesses to having lost inspiration. Ironically, the song is one of the album's most memorable compositions and impassioned performances.
"At the time I wrote '39,' I genuinely did feel that way," Smith recalls. "I originally wanted the song to sound really monotonous. It was really just one riff, and it was going to be the penultimate track on the album. The album was originally supposed to kind of cascade into monotony -- it was supposed to open with 'Watching Me Fall,' and then it would gradually just tail off. But I realized very quickly that it would sound like I had a couple of really great things and then ran out of ideas, so I had to rethink it.
"I think everyone, if they're old enough, at some point in their life has thought, 'Where did my passions go, what happened to my desires to change the world?' You have to work harder as you get older, because cynicism is like a creeping insidious enemy that can poison everything. And if I'm really honest, I have to admit that I don't have the same fire, the same desire to be heart, that I had when I was younger."
"But I think that saying 'The fire's almost out' in '39' is not a statement that I'm giving up. I'm just being open and honest about the fact that what's driven me to express myself in the past is just not there like it used to be. That's neither a good nor a bad thing, it's just a fact. When I was heading towards 30, I thought 'I have to do it now, because I'm running out of time and energy,' so I put everything I had into making Disintegration. On this album, I felt a different kind of drive. If I was still as fucking angry as I was when I made Disintegration, I'd be dead.
"At the time, though, I'd hate to use my songwriting skills to become an 'adult' artist, because that's boring and I hate anyone who does that. I like music that feels like the people making it need to be doing what they're doing, and I would never want to be in a band that didn't have that feeling. The only way for me to continue to have that with the Cure would be to start forcing myself to experience things that I can get songs out of, like destroying relationships. I tried that for a short while, and the benefits don't outweigh the disadvantages.
"The Cure became a kind of hyperreality for me, a way to feel I was experiencing more than I would if I'd lived a more mundane experience. Yet over the last few years, I've begun to feel the opposite, that my life outside of the group has actually become more interesting and exciting. I've spent so many years doing the Cure that I'd actually like to spend some time having a real life and getting to know people. I don't really have any good friends outside of the band anymore, and I've only recently re-established and rekindled old friendships and started to do normal things where it doesn't matter that I'm the singer in a group. I used to be really frightened of taking that step, but I'm actually attracted to the proposition now."
It's probably worth noting that Smith's most convincing Cure breakup scenarios have generally occurred following the completion of particularly intense, emotionally trying recording projects, suggesting that such talk may be a useful mechanism to allow him to distance himself from the emotional rigors of the creative process before eventually heading back to work. He does admit to having some second thoughts about his recent pronouncements about the group's future (or lack of it).
"The weird thing is that when I listen to the album now, I think, 'This sounds fucking great, it's great that we're gonna be playing these songs live.' So the war still rages wihin me -- do I really want to give this up? I might want to do it again. But I would certainly have to go about it in a totally different way. I couldn't make another last Cure album."
Smith's plan, after the Cure finishes touring behind Blood Flowers, is to record a long-simmering solo project. "I want to do something that's not the kind of pop/rock stuff that we do as the Cure," he explains. "I may end up doing it so anonymously that no one will know that it's me, or it might be an instrumental thing that's tied in with a film or tied in with some other project. So even if nobody knows about it, I'll still be able to induldge myself in music."
"And after I've gotten that out of my system, who knows? I don't know what I'm going to feel like in another two or three years, and it would be crazy of me to completely close the door on the Cure. If I'm sure about one thing, it's that if we were to do another Cure album at some point in the future, I very much doubt it would be the same band, and I very much doubt it would be the same style of music. If for whatever reason I felt like I needed to have the Cure name again, I wouldn't want to continue on from where we are at the moment. I don't want to be able to go back, because I don't see what else we could possibly do in that vein that would make sense, or that would be better than what we've already done.
"I was writing music when I was about 5, and I didn't have a record contract then, and I'm sure I'll just continue until long after everyone else has given up on me. I just have to free myself from the notion that everything I do has to be for public consumption."