A beginner’s guide to the music of The Cure

A beginner’s guide to the music of The Cure

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: The Cure.

The Cure 101
Although The Cure hasn’t released an album in five years—or a truly great one in 25—it’s no surprise it was picked to headline Lollapalooza this year. The band remains one of the most influential and successful to arise from the post-punk movement of the late ’70s. And it’s done so on its own terms. Veering left when the music world leaned right, frontman Robert Smith and his shifting cast of players brought a lush, decadent sound to the sometimes-sterile ’80s, morphing from morbid goth to quirky pop to epic psychedelia. By the end of that decade, the band’s breakthrough album, Disintegration, not only catapulted The Cure to a new level of stadium-filling fame, it foresaw the rise of both shoegaze and alternative rock in the ’90s. And that presence has remained strong ever since. It’s hard to imagine acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Bright Eyes, Interpol, M83, or DIIV sounding as they do without the musical foundation The Cure laid down.

The Cure, though, was a late bloomer. Unlike contemporaries such as Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees (Smith briefly joined the latter in the early ’80s), the group spent many years struggling to find its sound. From the wiry, brittle rock of its 1979 debut, Three Imaginary Boys (released in the U.S. as Boys Don’t Cry with a different track list, including the addition of the title song) to the trippy sprawl of 1987’s double album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Smith explored both minimalism and maximalism. Between those extremes, Smith’s chiming guitar and emotive, melodramatic croon moved through styles and tied everything together. The result flew in the face of The Cure’s closest peers, as New Order became a dance-floor innovator and Echo & The Bunnymen faded foggily into the background by the end of the ’80s. Yet The Cure crafted its strongest hooks and hit its peak of popularity, due in no small part to Smith’s instantly recognizable image as a shock-haired, lipsticked icon.

Regardless of Smith’s reputation as a ghoulish gloom-monger, The Cure’s body of work leading up to Disintegration shows an astonishing range of texture and feeling, from the monochrome chill of 1980’s Seventeen Seconds to the shimmering hooks of 1985’s The Head On The Door. It was a tumultuous time for the band. Smith’s tenure as guitarist for Siouxsie And The Banshees—then a far more notable band—from ’82 to ’84 divided his loyalties. Smith struggled not only with his reluctance to be a frontman, but also with his emerging pop sensibilities, which he felt might alienate his goth audience. He underestimated both himself and his fans. When he quit The Banshees, gripped the reins of The Cure more tightly, and stepped forward with hook-laden, brass-dappled gems like The Head On The Door’s “Close To Me,” The Cure began to fully take effect.

The Head On The Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me gave The Cure a new lease on life, but Disintegration changed everything. Perfectly combining the consistent coolness of the group’s early-’80s goth period with the superb, sparkling songcraft that followed, Disintegration was the right album at the right time. Alternative rock was on the ascent, and Smith’s swooning romanticism—best heard on hits like “Lovesong”—led to him becoming the friendly face of darkness. The Cure chased Disintegration with 1992’s Wish, a lesser effort that nonetheless sold by the bucketload in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind and R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. Wish may not be as good as Disintegration—and its unapologetically saccharine pop was definitely bemoaned by diehards—but it remains an indelible document of the era that doesn’t really deviate from The Cure’s essence.

Intermediate work
Unofficially dubbed The Dark Trilogy, The Cure’s second, third, and fourth albums—1980’s Seventeen Seconds, 1981’s Faith, and 1982’s Pornography—displayed the heavy influence of Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees. But that stretch of grim, oppressive gray borrowed uniquely from both, taking the stark severity of the former and sprucing it up with the decadent opulence of the latter. It’s a foreboding block of work, and if The Cure’s career had ended there—which it almost did—the band might be little more than an intriguing footnote of the post-punk age. But the seeds of what would come later are planted in Smiths’ emerging confidence and sense of composition.

[pagebreak]

The transition away from dourness and doom is reflected in The Cure’s 1984 full-length, The Top. It’s not a smooth transition, however. The sultry, exotic single “The Caterpillar” isn’t the only stellar track on the album, but overall The Top feels scattered and tentative, the chrysalis the band needed to shed to reach its next incarnation. The Cure’s striking transmutation throughout the first half of the ’80s is excellently documented on the singles collection Standing On A Beach; between the band’s 1978 debut single, the Camus-inspired, controversially titled “Killing An Arab,” and the wistful “In Between Days,” Standing On A Beach is a stunning snapshot of a promising group—and a budding songwriter—growing by leaps and bounds. And also challenging the preconceptions of what a so-called goth act could and should do.

After The Head On The Door, a new path opened for The Cure: crank out some catchy singles, court radio, get rich. Instead, it released Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. No one would ever again be able to write off The Cure as one-dimensional; across Kiss Me’s 18 tracks is smeared a smorgasbord of sound. The psychotropic exorcism “The Kiss” coexists with the bright, punchy “Why Can’t I Be You?”; the languidly infectious “Just Like Heaven” offsets the eerie, fluttering “Like Cockatoos.” It’s a lot to absorb—but every second of it works. And it proved to the world that The Cure had Zeppelin-level ambition to back up its nascent anthemics.

Advanced studies
The Cure began to coast after the superstardom that came with Disintegration and Wish. The group’s lineup became even less stable than before, and a once-prolific group grew stagnant. That said, there are high points to 1996’s Wild Mood Swings, 2004’s The Cure, and the band’s 13th and most recent album, 2008’s 4:13 Dream. Few of them, though, are more than pleasant echoes of The Cure’s past glory. The exception is 2000’s Bloodflowers. Considered by Smith to be of a piece with Pornography and Disintegration, the disc certainly traffics in the same ethereality and moodiness. It doesn’t fully stack up against its predecessors, but it shows Smith is still capable of a substantial return to form. Now that The Cure has drafted second guitarist and former David Bowie sideman Reeves Gabrels, it’s entirely possible that the band is ready to crack open a fresh chapter of its catalog. But there hasn’t been any hint that a 14th studio album is anywhere near realization.

Miscellany
The discography of The Cure is packed with paraphernalia. Live albums, remixes, side projects, and random guest appearances by Smith make being a Cure completist a potentially lifelong endeavor. Few of these tangents are essential—and that includes the 1990 remix disc Mixed Up. Rather than enlisting name DJs for the job, which has since become customary, Smith headed the project himself. Accordingly, Mixed Up lacks the surprise or imagination of a great remix album. Released the same year, Entreat holds up far better. The live album was recorded in 1989 and exclusively features tracks from Disintegration. Rather than being a redundancy, though, it’s a vital record of just how potent The Cure—and those songs—were and remain. Of Smith’s various side projects, the most notable (and repeatedly listenable) is The Glove. A collaboration with his then-bandmate in The Banshees, Steve Severin, the project’s lone full-length, 1983’s Blue Sunshine, not only stands as a unique slice of ’80s new wave; it’s also the first indication of how seamlessly Smith could blend melodic bounce and lyrical perversity.

The essentials

1. Disintegration
Pop shrouded in atmosphere, or atmosphere with a core of pop? Disintegration doesn’t bother to draw that distinction. Instead, its soaring gravity and majestic mope turn paradox into paradise. Aching, sleepy-eyed, and hazy to the point of dissolution, the album is nevertheless anchored to churning rhythms and Smith’s sumptuous moan—not to mention lyrics that tap poetically yet accessibly into the dream state of the lovelorn. It’s a recipe the shoegaze scene would soon run with. Not only is it The Cure’s best album, it gathers together everything the band had done and went on to do—and sews it together without a visible stitch.

2. The Head On The Door 
It’s not easy to see in retrospect how bold and brave a move The Head On The Door was. At the time, it may as well have been a Hail Mary; lesser bands have vanished after making such a sharp and seemingly irreversible shift toward pop. The Cure made it work by keeping its kinks while expanding its palette. “In Between Days” is the disc’s upbeat opener and best-known song, and rightfully so. But “Close To Me” is appropriately hushed and intimate, and “A Night Like This” approaches power-ballad territory while paving the way for the eventual grandeur of Disintegration.

3. Pornography
The apotheosis of The Cure’s Dark Trilogy, Pornography, doesn’t greatly expand upon the preceding two installments, Seventeen Seconds and Faith. But it does perfect Smith’s quintessentially goth aesthetic. Like razorblades slicing through the murk, songs such as “Cold” and “One Hundred Years” howl, twitch, and shiver in anticipation of a bleaker future—even as the album as a whole marks the beginning of Smith’s evolution from just another goth scarecrow to the starry-eyed gloom conductor of an entire generation (or two).

4. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
If The Cure had a White Album, it would be Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. The double-disc is staggering in scope. With a vat of acid in one hand and a bouquet of daisies in the other, Smith weds fits of vituperation, frustration, and despair to flashes of joy, romance, and even gallows humor. The sound is densely layered and intricately orchestrated, but there are also chiseled, crystalline tracks like “Catch” to carve out just enough breathing space. Kiss Me could have spelled career suicide for The Cure; instead it paid off, allowing Smith to throw every color and manner of paint he could muster against a canvas as big as the sky.

5. Boys Don’t Cry
There’s a lot to be said for the integrity of the original version of The Cure’s first album, Three Imaginary Boys. But its subsequent reissue as Boys Don’t Cry not only corrects a few mistakes on the part of the record label—including a subpar cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” that Smith never intended for release—it also boasts two of The Cure’s best loved classics, the title track and “Killing An Arab.” The rest of the disc, though, has outlived many of its post-punk brethren; there’s a timeless otherworldliness to its charming, often clunky oddity that makes for a bracing listen. And a prophetic one.

More Primer