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Why can’t I be a Cure fan like you?

Robert Smith of The Cure (Photo: Ollie Millington/Getty Images)
Robert Smith of The Cure (Photo: Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

Gwen Ihnat: The Cure didn’t exactly make a U-turn in 1987 with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, but it was a hell of a reroute. The iconically mopey band, led by head goth/grump Robert Smith, all of a sudden had a cheerful horn section in “Why Can’t I Be You?” that threaded throughout the double album. And while its poppiness—and the smash success of “Just Like Heaven”—helped Kiss Me become The Cure’s first Top 40 record in the U.S., it also became the first Cure record I never bought.

I was probably slightly too cheerful to be too much of a goth. In my younger years, I preferred buoyant outfits like Simple Minds or lively pop like Squeeze. But whenever I was mad at my parents, my sibling, or the world—like teens before and after me—The Cure was the perfect solace. I tried albums like Pornography and The Top, but my go-to was Standing On A Beach, a compilation of The Cure’s first 13 U.K. singles. Dark sonic journeys like “The Walk,” “The Hanging Garden,” and especially “Charlotte Sometimes” made for ideal wallowing music. I could even appreciate when the band perked up a little bit, like in “Let’s Go To Bed” and the cute “The Love Cats.” And I stayed on board through The Head On The Door, mostly because of “In Between Days.”

Then Kiss Me arrived. It’s not like I loved every Cure song before that, but I hated—really hated—“Why Can’t I Be You?” Unfortunately, it got a lot of airplay here in Chicago on WXRT. (Why couldn’t “Hanging Garden” have received the same treatment?) Maybe it’s my disdain for any horn section that isn’t in The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” or just how unfamiliarly jaunty Robert Smith sounded, but I couldn’t stand it and, subsequently, most of Kiss Me. So I walked away from The Cure, and any time I heard one of the band’s hits after that—like “Fascination Street” or my other personal nemesis, “Doing The Unstuck”—I felt I’d made the right decision.

Sean, I know that you’re much more of a music completist than I am. Where I too often fall into the “aw, I liked their old stuff better” cliché, you’re about the only person I know who’s probably still buying R.E.M. albums. I admire that kind of loyalty, and I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something. I suspect your long history with bands like The Cure might make their newer stuff even more valuable to you. But as the 30th anniversary of Kiss Me approaches, what are you hearing in it, Disintegration, and Wish that I missed? I usually appreciate your taste in music, but are you actually a fan of “Why Can’t I Be You?” Why?

Sean O’Neal: I’m not as much of a completist as you’re suggesting, Gwen; I didn’t turn on them the way you did The Cure, but I actually stopped buying new R.E.M. albums after 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. (If you want someone who hung on until the very end, talk to Josh Modell.) However, as with you bailing on R.E.M. around Out Of Time, I’m once again taken aback that your departure point with The Cure came during what most fans would probably point to as its creative zenith. And while I can understand—if vehemently disagree with—you disliking Automatic For The People for being too “sappy,” I’m honestly flabbergasted to meet a self-described Cure fan who doesn’t like Disintegration. Is that even allowed? I don’t even know that I have a response to your question of what I’m hearing in those albums. My rebuttal would be, what are you not?

Maybe this comes down to the slight difference in our ages. Disintegration was my introduction to The Cure, and like your own experiences, it soundtracked a lot of my adolescent wallowing. There’s a lot of beautiful, majestic anguish on that record, from the wintry blast of “Plainsong” all the way through the tear-streaked “Untitled,” and—with the exception of “Lullaby,” “Pictures Of You,” and “Lovesong,” songs that qualify as relatively upbeat by the rest of the album’s standards—Disintegration was such a return to the gloomy, tormented aesthetic of Pornography and Faith that Robert Smith’s record label almost rejected it, leading him to snipe that they clearly “don’t have a fucking clue what The Cure does and what The Cure means.” (No insult intended to you, Gwen.) Depression, despondency, and desperation color every gorgeously gray note of it. Even “Fascination Street,” which you say confirmed the band had lost whatever appeal it had for you, is one of the most acrid, seething songs in the band’s catalog.

Forgive me if this sounds combative, but have you actually listened to these albums? Or are you making judgment calls based solely on those singles? Because again, while I can understand—if vehemently disagree with you—finding the horn section on “Why Can’t I Be You?” to be a musical bridge too far (personally, I’m not a fan of the ’80s action-movie saxophone bleats all over “Hey You!!!” and “Icing Sugar”), Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is such a wonderfully varied collection of songs, it’s hard for me to fathom you not liking some of it. “The Kiss” is arguably the darkest, angriest, most black-hearted breakup song ever written, and even if you’re immediately put off by the winsome “Catch,” side one alone has the dour “Torture” and “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep.” Then there’s “The Snakepit,” “All I Want,” “One More Time,” “Like Cockatoos,” “Shiver And Shake,” “Fight”—all of which have the same gothic mope and churn you say you like from the band’s early-’80s incarnation. I’ll just assume you don’t like the dance-punk of “Hot Hot Hot!!!” either, and let’s say you’re enough of an iconoclast to also dislike “Just Like Heaven.” That’s still 10 tracks, an entire album’s worth of The Cure sounds you claim to love just waiting to be cherry-picked into your playlist.

If this stance were predicated on Wish alone, well, again I wouldn’t agree, but I would at least see where you were coming from. I personally love that album, but even I recognize that it’s kind of uneven and ever so slightly inert in a way that portends the band’s fallow period in the mid-’90s. I also get why you might be put off by the peppiness of “Doing The Unstuck” (though to quote Smith, “Well it just goes to show / How wrong you can be,” because that song is blissfully cathartic). I’d even understand not liking “High” or—my own least-favorite Cure single—“Friday I’m In Love.” Still, writing Wish off completely means missing out on both the roiling anti-club hit “Open” and the anguished gothic melodrama “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea,” a song that makes every romance you’ve ever had seem like a Tinder hookup. Both of those never fail to make me feel like I’m standing on a cliff, drunk on wine and heartbreak, screaming into the abyss over a lost love, and I’ve been happily married for a decade.

Furthermore, I have to say, you have some pretty arbitrary standards when it comes to “jaunty” Cure. You seem to have hung on through The Top, so did “The Caterpillar” not put you off? You say you liked The Head On The Door mostly because of “In Between Days,” another strummy song that’s at least as jaunty as “Doing The Unstuck,” yet you didn’t find the playful swing of “Six Different Ways” or “Close To Me” to be deal breakers? And as you say, you’re okay with the jazzy, delightfully silly “The Love Cats,” but not the equally fun and flirty “Why Can’t I Be You?” Even your beloved Standing On A Beach is absolutely dominated by The Cure’s poppier moments, including its centerpiece, the winsome “Boys Don’t Cry.” You’re obviously well-versed in the dichotomy of Robert Smith, how he vacillates between jangly pop dreams and droning post-punk nightmares, so it confuses me that you decided upon the release of Kiss Me that he’d tipped too far toward the former. And it saddens me a little that you could no longer hear or appreciate how he was still creating some of his darkest work between those brief shafts of light, with so many incredible shades in between.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m too close to it. After all, The Cure is in my top-three favorite bands of all time (just behind The Fall and The Velvet Underground), and it’s largely for the way Smith deftly handles those myriad moods as I just described. And yes, that means I like “Why Can’t I Be You?”—blaring horn section and all—as its depiction of lust as an all-consuming, self-immolating hunger, placed over that bouncy dance beat, still embodies The Cure’s version of romantic torment. (Not to mention, it’s one of the sexiest songs in the group’s discography.) Me, I wasn’t really let down by the band until Wild Mood Swings, which felt like the sort of tonally jumbled departure point you’ve accused Kiss Me of being, yet I’ve still found things to like (even love) in that album, as well as everything since. And I’ll always move heavens and babysitters to see the group live whenever I can—where, by the way, the set list is usually heavy on Kiss Me, Disintegration, and Wish material. Until you spoke up, I wasn’t aware that a single Cure fan existed who might be disappointed by that.

I know these kinds of Crosstalks are always a little pointless, as I’m really just arguing with your personal tastes—and if you don’t like something, no amount of stumping from me is going to change your mind. Yet I guess my only remaining question is, after relistening to some of the songs I mentioned up above, are you really still convinced there’s nothing for you on any of those albums? And if so—and forgive the pointedness of this question—are you sure you actually like The Cure?

Gwen: Like a lapsed Catholic, I think you could consider me a fallen Cure fan. But my love for them was once so strong, that’s why I wanted to instigate this (public, online) discussion: to find out if those albums I dismissed earlier were worth a revisit. Maybe you’re right, and my distaste for the singles led me to reject them too quickly. And you feel so strongly about them that I dove back into that particular trifecta—with mixed results.

There were some tracks that struck that same dissatisfied chord in me as those earlier cuts did. You were right: I especially appreciated Robert Smith’s rage-a-holics-anonymous fest in “The Kiss.” But as Kiss Me went on, I remembered why I really don’t like it. It’s just so fucking long. A double album made The Cure’s previous wallowing just seem self-indulgent. Even “The Kiss” takes over six minutes to get to the goddamn point, while the also-lengthy “Torture” and “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” plod along until the warning horns of “Why Can’t I Be You?” kick in. Then my heart sinks to the bottom of my emotional ocean the same way it did in 1987. That song remains the polar opposite of sexy for me.

I thought I had turned on The Cure because it got too chipper, but revisiting Kiss Me shows me I was wrong. I turned off because of all the mind-numbing noodling. Piano adds some nice poignancy to the relationship vignette of “How Beautiful You Are,” and I do like the romantic ghost story of “Just Like Heaven,” but it’s one of those rare instances where a superior cover has ruined the original for me. (Thank you, Dinosaur Jr.) So many of Kiss Me’s songs have super long instrumental intros, maybe with some sitar or wood instruments or odd percussion thrown in, that I found my patience wavering a lot. Where I once wanted to see where “A Forest” led me, I just prayed for someone, anyone, with a hook to bust in and break up the dour party of “The Snakepit.” And “Hey You!!!” doesn’t count, because it messes up any buoyancy it may possess with a saxophone that wandered off from the Saturday Night Live house band. I’m somewhat gratified that you agree with me on this one.

As rediscoveries go, “All I Want” is my now-favorite Kiss Me song, with Smith “screaming like an animal” because “all I want is to be with you again.” I’ll borrow your “standing on a cliff” description and say this song perfectly sums that up for me, in the way only The Cure can, with those layers of raging guitars atop mournful synth. But then “Hot Hot Hot!!!” shows up, and I want to jump right off that cliff. Man, this album is still a tough listen for me. I agree that it has an impressive array of musical varietals, Sean, twisting into any number of genres. It’s just that sometimes the diversity translates into bad songs.

My disdain for Kiss Me led me to gloss over Disintegration, and the overplayed “Fascination Street” didn’t help—although only someone lacking a heart could write off “Pictures Of You,” even at its full seven minutes. On this revisit, I was pleased to discover that most of Disintegration was actually rather rainy-day-esque, which indeed makes it perfect for those wallowing afternoons you and I described, though I do think it gets a bit plodding somewhere around the nine minutes of “The Same Deep Water As You.” I probably don’t need that much concentrated angst immersion anymore.

With Wish, I think you’re absolutely right about our difference in Cure preferences being separated by a few years. College-aged me probably would have taken to it as easily as she did to Pornography, instead of rejecting it straightaway. Of the three records, Wish is the one I enjoyed relistening to the most, even as I have to slide past the wah-wah pedal of “Wendy Time” and the horrors of “Friday I’m In Love,” where Smith tries a few anguished squeals in the background, but they’re not fooling anybody. I agree with you absolutely on “Open” and “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea,” and I also gravitated toward the relationship angst of “Trust” and “Apart,” as well as the searing, unhinged “Cut.”

I thought my reaction to “Doing The Unstuck” was about me looking at this band I thought I knew and wondering who the hell they are. But after steeping myself in The Cure for this, I think I get it now. I resented Smith, bard of my depression, telling me to just shake it off and get happy. How dare he embrace the light when I needed him to be dark. But if he wants to break away in such a poppy fashion or be sickly sweet and lovelorn in “High,” well, who am I to judge? Taken from a years-later, less-personal angle, “Doing The Unstuck” becomes less annoying and more cathartic, as you describe.

So while you may not have totally changed my mind, looking back at these albums with you was a bit revelatory—leading me, as I’d hoped, to the discovery that Kiss Me made me burn some musical bridges I probably shouldn’t have. Maybe I’ll even check out the next Cure show with you, Sean—even though I’ll probably have some issues with the set list.