Wild Mood Swings: A Deep Dive Retrospective of The Cure
Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as your read along. Note, only YouTube version has the complete playlist due to lack of availability on Google Play and Spotify.
This year is the 40th anniversary of seminal post-punk, goth prototype band, The Cure. Robert Smith, its iconic founder, leader, singer, guitarist, song writer, and only constant member for all forty years, is curating the Meltdown Festival this month and The Cure will headline a massive anniversary show in Hyde Park, London in July. The Cure are one of the best known, respected, revered, and cherished acts of the post-punk era. They embody the essence of 1980s experimentation and progressiveness in modern rock, and fully deserve the accolades and feting that this summer will entail.
The 'Deep Dive' Playlist
- Grinding Halt
- It's Not You
- Three Imaginary Boys
- In Your House
- Seventeen Seconds
- The Holy Hour
- All Cats Are Grey
- One Hundred Years
- A Strange Day
- Birdmad Girl
- Dressing Up
- Piggy in the Mirror
- The Blood
- The Baby Screams
- The Perfect Girl
- Prayers for Rain
- Doing the Unstuck
- This Is A Lie
- Round & Round & Round
- The Last Day of Summer
- Before Three
- I Don't Know What's Going On
- Underneath the Stars
- The Hungry Ghost
- This. Here and Now. With You.
As a modern rock act, The Cure were rarely chart toppers outside of its native England, yet it’s hard to find anyone over thirty who wouldn’t know who they are and be familiar with at least a few of their songs and their sound and image. Yet the depth, consistency, quality, and character of their discography begs the deep dive treatment, because to stroll through their greatest hits will introduce you to The Cure, but not reveal the full extent of their charm, intrigue, and beauty. And as is sometimes the case with bands who were so consistent, the singles and hits were often not the best selections from the albums, so a deep dive will allow a less distracting and still solidly engaging review of The Cure’s music.
Robert Smith, Michael ‘Mick’ Dempsey, and Laurence ‘Lol’ Tolhurst were high school friends in Crawley, West Sussex, a community just south of Gatwick Airport near London. They played in bands through school, forming one called Malice that dabbled in the Glam music of the mid-70s. By 1977 they had settled into a quartet called Easy Cure with Porl Thompson joining on guitar. Despite holding auditions to find a frontman, Smith fell into the role and the band’s defining sound was in place. They won a talent contest and a contract with German label, Hansa Records, but the label and the band couldn’t agree on their sound nor was Hansa keen on the song they’d recorded, “Killing an Arab,” and they were released without issuing any music. It was the first sign that these young men were not going to follow a typical path.
In 1978 the band was moving to a more stripped down, punk-influenced sound and Thompson was shown the door as his playing didn’t fit. Therefore, it was the remaining trio, with the shortened name The Cure, that was signed to Indie label, Fiction, and “Killing an Arab” was issued as the first single to acclaim and controversy. Smith had to explain the song was not anti-Muslim but was based on Albert Camus’ existentialist novel, L’Etranger, in which the protagonist shoots an Arab on the beach. It was a dark and portentous start for The Cure, clearing the path to the place the band would occupy in the musical landscape.
Grinding Halt; It’s Not You; Three Imaginary Boys \ Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
The first album was released in May of 1979 and, as was the custom in the UK, the singles were released separately. First was “Boys Don’t Cry” followed by “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” both of which were fantastic songs of differing temperament that displayed the unique talent of the band.
The album was a pop-punk sound with stripped down, jangly guitars and simple, catchy melodies. It lacked the energy and anger of the punk sound of the time, but the raw and sparse guitar, driven by propulsive drums and thick bass, separated it from the other pop sounds of the time. It was a great album and a consistent listen start to finish. You can hear the sounds familiar from the early singles in the songs on this playlist. “Grinding Halt” has a ska-like rhythm and a catchy feel, while “It’s Not You” is a straight-ahead punk tune. The title track hints at what’s to come as the plodding, moody ballad brings Robert’s voice into focus and shows the potential of what the band could do with this sound. At a tender of age of nineteen when the songs were recorded, Smith’s voice hadn’t matured yet into its iconic sound, but his character and playfulness were there in many of the songs, including a thick Brit accent.
Once again, showing the band was not going to be typical, Smith and the band were unhappy with the results of the first LP. While touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees Smith had to step in on guitar after Siouxsie’s guitarist quit, and the diving into the darker, bolder style of The Banshees awakened the young lad to new possibilities, fortuitously steering him away from the crowded pop-punk genre.
In Your House; M; Seventeen Seconds \ Seventeen Seconds (1980)
The following year saw the release of the band’s second album while their first album was re-packaged into a different track listing – singles included – and released in North America as Boys Don’t Cry. The dissatisfaction with the first effort resulted in a different sophomore effort, with Smith exerting greater control. Dempsey left the band out of dissatisfaction with the new sound and joined The Associates. Simon Gallup and Matthieu Hartley joined, making The Cure a quartet of Smith (guitar and vocals), Hartley (keyboards), Gallup (bass), and Tolhurst (drums).
The first example of the new sound was the lead single, “A Forest,” this time taken from the album. It was a brilliant single and remains one of the band’s signature songs to this day. A slow, ominous build of keyboards and guitar slid into pulsating drums and then a smooth, new-wave melody of drums, synths and guitar riding over a strong bassline. Smith’s voice echoed over the song as the mood took hold and gave the sensation of being caught alone, cold, and vulnerable in a dark forest, possibly inhabited by the ghost girl of the lyrics.
The rest of the album mixed dark pop with moody atmospherics, drawing from the sounds pioneered by Joy Division over the prior two years (in recent years a spat arose between Joy Division bassist, Peter Hook, who accused The Cure of selling out and being jealous of JD in his book about Joy Division. Lol responded on social media stating that JD had opened for The Cure in 1979 because they liked JD, intimating Hook and the band owed The Cure a debt of gratitude). “Play for Today” was a fantastic pop-new wave song, in which the brightness of the tempo and melody were offset by the melancholy of the guitar and keyboards. The album was otherwise rife with gloom, mystery, and contemplation. “Secrets” and “In Your House” followed “Play for Today” with mid- to low-tempo tunes that wallowed in the dark mix of sparse guitar, deep bass, gloomy synths, and simple drums. A couple of spooky instrumentals set-up the opening of “A Forest,” before a return to some semblance of pop with “M.” It was a brief respite as the album closed with two more murky ballads, “At Night,” and the title track.
The Cure’s sound was a little jarring, distinct, and affecting, yet there was a warmth and character that intrigued and drew interest. “A Forest” managed to reach #31 on the UK singles chart and the album peaked at #20, gaining the band a foothold in the consciousness of the UK music scene. Attention outside the UK was muted to non-existent, though the album reached the top ten in New Zealand.
The Holy Hour; All Cats Are Grey \ Faith (1981)
By the end of the tour for Seventeen Seconds Hartley, like Dempsey, had had his fill of the band’s new sound and left. The Cure entered the studio for the third album as a trio of Smith, Tolhurst, and Gallup, which could be considered as close as it got to a classic Cure line-up. The resulting album, Faith, hewed closely to the established sound of Seventeen Seconds yet still moved the band forward. The single, “Primary,” was another fantastic song propelled with a hypnotic guitar and machine-like rhythm. Smith’s voice was now stronger, deeper, confident, and commanding of the musical landscape in which it dwelt.
The album was led by “The Holy Hour,” which played as if a natural extension to the closing of Seventeen Seconds. A more prevalent bass gave it more life and a brooding tone to start the LP. After the energy of “Primary” the mood was returned by “Other Voices,” a sonic partner to “The Holy Hour.” This led to the lovely “All Cats Are Grey,” in which the guitar was given a rest and the synths rode gently over the drums. It was in this song that the future of post-punk and alternative pop could be heard – simple, shimmering, catchy, and creative. The song can be overlooked in their canon (but adroitly selected by Nouvelle Vague for one of their cover treatments), but it was a powerhouse on the album and a defining moment in their evolution. Indeed, the second side of the album failed to capture such an engaging moment, as the frenetic pop-punk of “Doubt” was surrounded by more sombre ballads. The second side was, as always for The Cure, a good listen, but the weakest group of songs issued thus far.
The band followed the album with another single in the fall, “Charlotte Sometimes,” and continued to tour, wallowing in the dark moods of their recent albums. The new single hinted at an encouraging new sound, in which the pace and energy of the music was elevated while still swirling in the fog of their morose moods. The band was also building momentum commercially, with Faith reaching #14 in the UK and #1 in New Zealand, while “Primary” and “Charlotte Sometimes” had both peaked in the forties on the UK singles chart.
One Hundred Years; A Strange Day; Cold \ Pornography (1982)
As the band started 1982, a chicken-and-egg experiment seemed to be at play. The band was mired in a deep funk, abusing drugs and Smith in a deep depression. Was this a result of their music, or was the music a result of their mood? No doubt they were fueling each other, and Smith chose to ride it out and expunge the gloom by pouring it all into the next album. As is often the case with great art, it is borne in suffering and Pornography was a great example of that cliché. It was one of the best albums of the 1980s and a definitive LP of the post-punk, dark pop sound that would become the Goth genre.
This is also an important album in my life, as it was the only Cure album in our house (provided as usual by my brother, ten years my senior and in university at this point) and was thus my introduction to the band and a defining benchmark for much of what I would listen to thereafter. I would play it religiously in 1983-84 during my grade eight and nine years and knew it was unlike anything else I or what my friends were listening to (I also hadn’t really discovered Joy Division yet, though that was imminent). My love of modern rock and the dark and experimental elements within were established by this album.
The album opened with “One Hundred Years,” in which the epic sound of the guitars, pulsating drums, and Smith’s pained and expressive vocals provided a Cure song unlike any that had come before. It was still dark and atmospheric, but there was an energy, a passion, a pain, a palpable suffering behind the music that affected you as a listener. This wasn’t just pop music, or angry rock or punk, this was artistic expression like you’d find in painting. The next song, “A Short Term Effect,” continued with the pounding drums but with guitar and piano ebbing in and out creating a chaotic, disorienting feel. “The Hanging Garden” was next and was the single from the album. Drums again charge through a song that held together with a tighter alliance of guitar and bass, and Smith’s vocal was more forthright and less tortured. It was a frenetic song that exhausted you after the three drum-driven songs to start the album. The first side closed with the dirge-like, “Siamese Twins.”
The second side continued with a focus on drums (though I suspect much of the album uses a drum machine), though with slightly less pace, as guitar asserted itself more and a rock element slid in on the opener, “The Figurehead.” This led to one of the band’s most overlooked and brilliant songs, “A Strange Day.” I don’t know why this wasn’t a single or a staple of their live sets, but it was the culmination and perfection of everything the band had been working towards. It was dark and foreboding, but not morose and impenetrable. It mixes rhythm and melody in perfect combinations, and all of the vocals, drums, and guitar worked together in a powerful orchestration. I especially loved the guitar work on this song. “Cold” followed in a synth-led, percussion-propelled walk once again through an angst-ridden expanse, continuing to set the bar for all Goth music that would follow. The LP closed, for the fourth consecutive album, with the title track (though Three Imaginary Boys had a short interlude following to close the album), a frenzied, experimental piece of noisy guitar and drums with echoey vocals. It was a jarring and difficult finale to the album, but also the final cry of anguish from Smith and the band as they would close this chapter of dark, musical exploration. In a 2004 Rolling Stone article recounting this album, Smith stated in response to the suggestion that no other album equals Pornography in intensity and passion, “I don’t think you can make too many albums like that, because you wouldn’t be alive.” Indeed.
The album was their first failure with critics, likely put off by the increased gloom of The Cure’s sound. Over time though that would change and the record would be recognized for the influential tour-de-force that it was. The initial negative reaction from critics wasn’t shared by the band’s growing fan base, who embraced the album, sending “The Hanging Garden” to #34, almost equalling “A Forest” for their best result. The album would be The Cure’s first to crack the top ten in the UK. There was still no success in the US, but given the nature of their sound, this shouldn’t have been surprising.
At this point the band was having to answer to queries about their image, or rather, lack of one. Their album covers were undefined, using vague visuals and blurred pictures on the covers with no clear photos of the band. In concert there was no discernable style, which for the early 80s in the UK was becoming a liability as acts embraced fashion and style as part of their overall oeuvre. The MTV generation was taking hold and bands could no longer ignore this aspect of their presentation. During the album’s tour, titled Fourteen Explicit Moments Tour, The Cure started to marry their look with their sound, taking the big hair and make-up of the New Wave scene and distorting it into messy pompadours, pale faces, and thickly applied, messy or smeared lipstick. It was a look the band, and Smith in particular, would forever be identified.
Before leaving this stage of The Cure’s career, because Pornography really did mark the end of their first phase, it’s important to note this was also the end of a period in which Robert Smith and the band really had a defining influence on modern music. Despite their lack of chart success, the dark style of new wave pop they’d developed over those three successive albums helped launch an entire sub-genre of modern rock. Many would lump them with the Goth label, though Smith would always express irritation with that classification. It was true they never fit cleanly into Goth given what the genre would become, but their look and style were certainly close enough to be kindred spirits, and it was also true their style influenced many that would define Goth. To this day there’s a style of modern rock that loves a dark tone shrouded in mystique, gloom, and existential angst, and that came directly from The Cure as well as Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, and others that came out of punk but didn’t fall smitten to the brighter sounds of synth-driven New Wave and pop.
Birdmad Girl; Dressing Up; Piggy in the Mirror \ The Top (1984)
Despite what the band felt after recording and touring Pornography, they carried on. However, the darkness of their music once again took a toll as Simon Gallup left after he and Smith were no longer getting along. Smith began working with Steve Severin of The Banshees on some music, releasing a flexi-disc single with him, “Lament,” under The Cure’s name and also joined Siouxsie and the Banshees on tour. By the second half of 1982 it was unclear whether The Cure were still a viable entity.
The answer to The Cure’s future would come in the form of their next single, “Let’s Go to Bed,” released in November, 1982. It was recorded by Smith, Tolhurst and a session drummer, with Lol having moved to keyboards. Phil Thornalley, who had helped produce Pornography, would help out on bass. The song was a mostly electronic song with a much brighter sound, danceable vibe, and unabashed sense of fun and pop sensibility. Smith wrote it to help dispel the gloom defining the band and to start a reinvention, He initially thought to release it under a different name given its departure from The Cure’s sound. He didn’t care much for the song, yet it went to #44 on the UK chart and the top twenty in Australia and New Zealand, so it appeared Cure fans (or new ones, possibly) were willing to accept The Cure as a lighter, more pop sounding act.
Acceptance would be verified with the release of the next two singles in 1983, “The Walk” and “The Love Cats.” The first was another danceable, electronic song while the second was a whimsical, piano and stand-up bass composition that heard Smith singing brightly and jauntily to a springy melody. “The Walk” went to #12 in the UK and “The Love Cats” brought The Cure their first top ten single. These recent singles and their B-sides were packaged for the Japanese market as an album, Japanese Whispers, but the label decided to release it internationally to cash in on the success and growing attention of these songs.
1983 also saw Smith continue to record with The Banshees, with his work with Severin culminating in an album under the band name, The Glove. The album and single, “Like an Animal,” went unnoticed given the larger focus on the growing success of both The Cure and The Banshees. Tolhurst also worked on other projects that year, so when Smith returned to the studio to do more Cure work, he began recording mostly on his own, but was eventually re-joined by Lol and Andy Anderson, who had played drums for The Glove and on “The Love Cats.” The resulting album, released in the spring of 1984, continued the band’s evolution away from its dark past and into new, experimental sounds.
The Top reflected the changing nature of the band, as many songs borrowed from varied and international styles. After the cohesiveness of the first four albums, it was a much less co-ordinated package of songs for a Cure album. “Shake Dog Shake” and “Give Me It” sounded almost like straight-ahead rockers, while “Wailing Wall” drew on Middle-Eastern sounds. “The Empty World” rode a military-like drum beat, “Bananafishbones” was as jumbled and fun as its name suggested, and of course the album closed with the title track, tilting back to the darker, sombre moods of the prior albums. The album featured one single, again, “The Caterpillar,” which was reminiscent of “The Love Cats” in its playful and flitting feel.
The songs on this playlist were the three strongest on the album and revealed the evolution of The Cure over the two years since Pornography. “Birdmad Girl” revealed the new, pop sensibility of the band and Smith’s direct singing style. The rhythm was more jaunty and while the guitar was similar in style to what had been heard before, it was more subtle and less pained and tragic, sounding like it was being played in a park on a sunny day rather than in a pounding maelstrom. “Dressing Up” displayed the lighter, fun, and New Wave approach to keyboards in their new sound. No longer drawing the songs down in single note, foreboding backgrounds, the keyboards were upfront and carried the song in brighter interplay. “Piggy in the Mirror” was a great song that brang all the elements of the refurbished Cure into focus, as melody, rhythm, expressive and not oppressive vocals, and a light guitar carred the song in a smart composition. I love how the song finished with the staccato delivery of the lyrics and synths, creating a lovely tension that showed while it was pop music, there was still something truly creative going on.
The Top would reach #10 in the UK, but perhaps more importantly sneak into the US top 200, giving The Cure their first chart presence in North America (aside from local or alternative charts, such as the CFNY radio station chart in Toronto, where The Cure were already mainstays – The Top was #23 in the year-end album chart in 1984). “The Caterpillar” reached #14 in the UK but did less well internationally than the recent singles. Regardless, the album, though a bit disjointed and incohesive as a work, did its job in saving the band from itself and opening it up to a future that didn’t depend on despondent Goths looking for music in which to gloomily brood.
The Blood; Push; The Baby Screams \ The Head on the Door (1985)
The Cure welcomed back two alumni as they prepared for the next album. Porl Thompson, an original member who had recently played sax on The Top, returned as a full-time member on guitar and keyboards; and Simon Gallup made amends with Smith and returned on bass. Boris Williams also joined to replace Andy Anderson on drums, an important change that altered the band’s sound with new percussive creativity and expression. The band was now a quintet of Smith, Tolhurst, Gallup, Thompson, and Williams, and together they produced the most accessible album yet for The Cure, 1985’s The Head on the Door. It was also the first (and one of the few) Cure albums to be solely written by Robert Smith.
These are a few of the albums I listened to the most in 1984-85 that formed the basis of my musical tastes today.
- The Psychedelic Furs – Mirror Moves
- Ultravox – Lament
- Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward
- Simple Minds – Sparkle in the Rain
- New Order – Low-Life
- The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
- Love and Rockets – Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven
- The Damned – Phantasmagoria
- The Waterboys – This is the Sea
- Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair
- China Crisis – Flaunt the Imperfection
- INXS – Listen Like Thieves
This album was a major presence in my life as its release coincided with my maturing both as a young man and as a music fan. I was in grade ten, fifteen years old, and already fascinated with The Cure from having listened to my brother’s copy of Pornography over the prior year. This was my first Cure purchase and it was a staple on my turntable that year along with those listed to the side. 1984-85 were huge years for me in cementing my love for music and establishing the deep trenches of my musical preferences, and The Cure was a primary influence.
The Head on the Door opened with the lead single, the amazing, New Order-like “In Between Days.” It was a straight-ahead pop-rock tune blended with the usual character that Robert Smith’s voice infused into every Cure song. Williams’ drumming is an immediate and noticeable change to the sound. The energy, pop melody, and absence of any dark turns set the tone for a new sound for the band. Which was not to say there wasn’t any darkness on the album. In many respects, the band managed to find a balance between the new pop songs and the dark elements of the second through fourth albums. “Kyoto Song” was a good example of how those came together, flavoured with a Far East tone. “A Night Like This” was another pop-rock song.
The highlight from this album was undoubtedly the second single, “Close to Me,” which immediately rose the ranks to become one of The Cure’s best songs. It was accompanied by a great video of the band crammed inside a wardrobe perched on the edge of cliff, which then toppled into the sea and filled with water, perfectly encapsulating the tension the song evoked. It was a simple yet smartly crafted song, playing on a hypnotic rhythm of bass and drums with the melody as always riding on Smith’s distinct vocal. And while the band wasn’t getting attention on prominent radio stations in North America, videos like this were getting attention on MTV and MuchMusic.
The various elements of the album could be heard in the three selected playlist songs. “The Blood” has a Spanish guitar running through it, carrying energy and a pop feel through it, while “The Baby Screams” brought the dark into the mix along with a swirling, bass and guitar rock mix. “Push” was similar to “In Between Days” as a guitar-driven, pop-rock tune with energetic drum fills.
The album closed with the song, “Sinking,” breaking the tradition of finishing with the title track, which this album didn’t have. The album title was lifted from a lyric in “Close to Me:” “But if I had your faith / Then I could make it safe and clean / If only I was sure / That my head on the door was a dream.” What was interesting in “Sinking” was that it foretold the lusher, dark synth-pop that would be the hallmark of the band’s return to darker music two albums later.
The Head on the Door wasn’t a huge breakthrough for The Cure, but it did reach #7 on the UK charts to establish a new highwater mark for them. “In Between Days” reached #15, marking the fourth consecutive top twenty single in the UK. “Close to Me” would reach the top ten in Australia and the album would be the #2 album on CFNY’s year-end chart in 1985 (right behind New Order’s Low Life). It ranks as one of the band’s best albums and, outside of the moody albums of their early career, the first to present a cohesive new pop sound for the band that balanced the dark with the light.
The Perfect Girl \ Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
In 1986 a compilation of the band’s singles was released, capitalizing on the band’s growing audience and introducing them to the many great songs in the band’s catalogue. Standing on a Beach-The Singles (alternatively titled Staring at the Sea in cd format and in some countries) went to #4 in the UK chart, a new high, and reached #48 in the US, achieving a breakthrough in that region. They also issued a great concert video, The Cure in Orange, a recording of the band’s performances in France in August, 1986 that revealed what a fantastic performance band The Cure could be, especially given their impressive array of songs they could trot out.
Also of note in 1986 was that Robert Smith cut his hair and started wearing colour, though the lipstick remained. It isn’t normally the kind of detail I like to include in a music profile, but the attention this garnered likely helped promote the band, since it was such a shock to fans, media, and casual observers that it drew more attention than the music. The new look would not last long and Smith would return to the bird’s nest of hair and black ensembles.
Everything was primed for the next album, and if you’ve read my other profiles you’ll recognize the dynamic that’s about to unfold. I consider The Cure’s seventh album to be one of their weakest and least interesting… which means it was their commercial breakthrough and one of the most beloved by Cure fans. For certain, any album that contained such an enjoyable alt-pop song as “Just Like Heaven” couldn’t be that bad, but then you got to the likes of “Hot Hot Hot!!!” and “Why Can’t I Be You?” and that goodwill was lost. Along with a decent fourth single, “Catch,” the moderate success of these songs explain why this, a double album no less, was the band’s first hit album, hitting the top ten in charts around the world and #35 in the US.
The album opened with the indulgent and boring “The Kiss” before meandering through a variety of light pop songs that gave little indication this was the same band that had ever produced the likes of Pornography, now just five years in the rear-view mirror. Towards the end of the album there was “The Perfect Girl,” a song that still embodied the quirkiness and character of a Cure we could recognize. In the end, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was a good example of why double albums are always a risky and generally inadvisable endeavour.
Closedown; Prayers for Rain \ Disintegration (1989)
In 1988, in their tenth year, Robert Smith was again struggling with The Cure’s identity. He had changed the band’s direction twice before, first pivoting away from punk into New Wave/Goth, then rescuing them from despair with three albums of pop and a sudden thrust into the mainstream limelight. He had cut his hair to rebel against the fascination with his “hair and lipstick” look, and then was annoyed at the attention that garnered. And while the band was now selling larger venues and stacks of records, the seriousness of The Cure had been lost, and its leader, who was approaching his thirtieth birthday, was yearning to make something meaningful again and loosen the shackles of stardom.
Rather than strike out in yet another musical direction, he chose to return to the music that had forged the band’s original identity – the dark, swirling mass of passion and angst of their early albums. This time, the music would be crafted less from suffering but be drawn from a more positive view. The result was Disintegration, the band’s most lauded and best-selling album of their career.
The Cure was still the quintet that had recorded the prior two albums, but Lol Tolhurst was in a bad way with drugs and couldn’t hold it together for performances or recording. He’d been replaced on the previous tour by Roger O’Donnell on keyboards. Smith had to make the difficult decision to kick Lol out of the band, leaving Robert as the only original member remaining in the line-up. So, while Tolhurst appears in the credits for the album, in actuality he did not contribute.
Disintegration was a beautiful album. It was lush and sprawling yet moody and atmospheric, drawing from the immediate sound of The Head on the Door but the ambience of Seventeen Seconds and Pornography. It was filled with rich guitar, bass, and keyboards to create epic compositions. Eight of the twelve songs were over five minutes long, which was very different than any prior album.
The album featured four singles, the first was “Lullaby” which would reach #5 in the UK to be the band’s second top ten single. It would also crack the top ten in several other countries and peak at #74 in the US. The next single was a North American release only, “Fascination Street,” and immediately identified itself as one of the band’s best rockers. The third single was “Lovesong,” which perhaps caught the band by surprise when it vaulted to #2 on the US singles chart, far better than the #18 spot it achieved in the UK (it was a throwaway song Robert wrote for his wife, and only put on the album as a lighter interlude to the other songs). This was followed by “Pictures of You” in early 1990 and the cumulative result was an album that peaked at #3 in the UK and #12 in the US. Disintegration was by far the most successful album yet for The Cure. Many tend to give this album the nod as their greatest work. Me, I find it lovely but a bit dull, and still get more of a rise out of Pornography.
You can hear what I mean in the two songs, “Closedown” and “Prayers for Rain.” There is a similarity of sound and texture on these songs that was present throughout the album. They’re great songs, as were all the others, and as an album it was a complete and unified work, but within that achievement there was a lack of edge that rendered it a little too safe for a Cure LP, especially if it was trying to shake the pop casualness of the recent work and return to something of consideration. The album achieved that – this was modern rock for adults more so than any of their previous releases – but how often does ‘adult music’ push boundaries? Disintegration, though, certainly had one thing going for it, and that was in 1989 there was not a lot of great modern rock going on, so this album was a giant in that respect. All that would change starting the following year.
Open; Doing the Unstuck; End \ Wish (1992)
By 1992 and the release of their next album, alternative music had broken through thanks to Grunge, and veteran bands like The Cure were able to reap some benefit before being cast aside as a relic of the past decade. They had released a remix album in 1990, Mixed Up, that included a new single, “Never Enough,” which reached the top twenty in the UK and kept The Cure in the popular consciousness. That helped set the band up for the Wish album, which was their first #1 album in the UK and would reach #2 in the US. It was their best charting album, though wouldn’t equal the last album in total sales. The Cure were touring in stadiums, and I saw them at The Skydome in Toronto, with the great band, The Cranes, as the opening act.
The new album would again see a line-up change, as Perry Bamonte would replace Roger O’Donnell. It seems to me that other than Smith, The Cure has always been a jumble of participants, but the band had more constancy than it would appear. Wish was the fourth consecutive album to be recorded with the core of Smith, Gallup, Thompson, and Williams. Additionally, Gallup had now played on six of the nine albums, Lol Tolhurst had been on seven (not including Disintegration), and Porl Thompson had played on six. The Cure was more of a band than it seemed, which often seemed nor more than Robert Smith’s backing act. That said, it was coming apart on this album and Smith has said that indeed this album felt like it was his and the others were just playing on it.
Simon Gallup (top) & Porl Thompson (below)
While the image of the The Cure is forever linked to Robert Smith, the other longtime members have had their own evolving styles over the years that have also contributed to the band's look.
I think Wish vies with The Head on the Door as their second-best album and probably their most pleasant and consistent listen from start to finish. Smith has also expressed it’s his second favourite after Bloodflowers (he seems to rate the albums by how enjoyable they were to record). It suffered a bit from the sameness problem that Disintegration had, but it was another rich and well-produced album. Again featuring long and fulsome compositions, there were so many songs to get lost in throughout the album. What also caught many by surprise were the unabashed pop moments on the album, such as “Doing the Unstuck” and especially the second single, “Friday I’m In Love,” which was easily the band’s most accessible and friendly song. It and the lead single, “High,” would both crack the top ten in the UK and “Friday” would reach the top twenty in the US, the second-best result after the surprise of “Lovesong.” It was also a song that drove the final nail in the coffin for fans of the band’s dark sound, which Robert would have to work to win back years later.
For this playlist I’ve selected the opening and closing tracks from the album – appropriately titled “Open” and “End” – to represent the newer, fresher, and broad sound The Cure had evolved into through Disintegration and Wish. “End” especially is a huge song, drawing on some of The Cure’s signature moodiness but propelled by the snarling guitars and energetic drumming of their later, rock-edged sound. These were songs tailor-made for large venues and the band made the most of them, putting on fantastic shows.
This Is A Lie; Round & Round & Round; Return \ Wild Mood Swings (1996) – YouTube playlist only
After releasing eight albums over their first eleven years, by 1996 the band had only released one album in the last six. Despite the success of Wish, The Cure were no longer a relevant and compelling band to audiences by the latter half of the 1990s. The core of the band was also coming apart as Thompson and Williams left to join other acts, leaving just Robert and Perry Bamonte to carry forward.
In the four years before the next album, a few songs were issued. They contributed a fantastic cover of “Purple Haze” to the splendid tribute album, Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Songs were also provided for movies, first “Burn” for The Crow and then “Dredd Song” as the theme for Judge Dredd. A new album was finally embarked in 1994, and Simon Gallup and Roger O’Donnell rejoined to fill out the line-up as well as newcomer Jason Cooper on drums.
Wild Mood Swings, finally released in 1996, was a better album than it’s given credit, yet after Disintegration and Wish it was a definite step down. The lush arrangements of those prior albums were largely abandoned and some of the eclectic pop sounds of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me returned, but with a little more 1990s rock edge because Grunge had happened and couldn’t be ignored. The album lacked songs that engaged in the way Cure fans expected, and there was a noticeable lack of bass and deeper registers on the album; though Smith sang in deeper tones in many places which was different for him. Overall, the album suffered from the same issues as Kiss Me, it was too disjointed and varied and nothing clicked. There were good songs for sure, but the album couldn’t be heard through the way their others could be so easily. It seemed Smith couldn’t locate the sweet spot between the sameness of the prior albums, which mined deeply a great, modern rock sound, versus trying for some variety but maintaining a consistent quality. Full points for trying, and I’ll take this album over Kiss Me.
Every Cure album had sold more than the last until this album. Despite releasing four singles, starting with “The 13th,” a salsa flavoured, horn-filled piece that was a departure from the traditional Cure sound (it’s a good song, and points to Smith for mixing it up all the same), the album peaked quickly and then faded. The first two singles (“Mint Car” was the second) both cracked the top twenty in the US but did poorly internationally. The album also cracked the top ten in the UK and the US, but overall sales paled compared to the prior four albums. The Cure were no longer a leading act of modern rock and were slipping inevitably into the veterans bracket.
The Last Day of Summer; Bloodflowers \ Bloodflowers (2000)
Perhaps dismayed by the drop in sales the band’s label released Galore, a greatest hits album covering 1987 to 1997. It contained a new single, “Wrong Number,” which included long-time David Bowie band member, Reeves Gabrels, on guitar. Unlike their past compilations, Galore didn’t sell well. In 1998 two more songs were issued, another tribute contribution, “World In My Eyes,” which was on For the Masses, a Depeche Mode tribute; and then “More than This,” a new song on the soundtrack to The X-Files.
History repeated itself as, after a lighter album and with the band seemingly breaking apart, Smith sought to issue another defining, important recording. The result was Bloodflowers, which Smith declared as a completion to a trinity with Pornography and Disintegration. And while musically and contextually the comparison is apt, the classification feels like something contrived to assign it some gravitas and interest to The Cure fans lost during the 1990s. There had never been mention of a trilogy before or even of any connection between Pornography and Disintegration, but who am I to question Robert Smith on his own music?
Bloodflowers was a solid album and unquestionably drawn musically from the same well as those darker Cure albums. The lush sounds were back with the deep, resonant basslines and the long, drawn-out jams. Every song but one ran over five minutes with one clocking in over eleven (Smith kept the track listing to nine songs to try and contain the overall album length, but it still came in over an hour). The album seemed to be a pet of Smith’s and he’s expressed satisfaction at having been able to make another dark Cure album without bringing the band into a pit of despair.
The album issued no singles, and indeed it’s not easy to pull songs out of the overall composition as the album settled into the same consistent groove in the way Disintegration and Wish had. “The Last Day of Summer” and “Bloodflowers” are two of the better and more accessible songs that provided the feel and sound of the album. The challenge for this album was that, with the band now in its twenty-second year and on its eleventh LP, there was nothing new. The albatross for The Cure has always been being The Cure – masters and prisoners of their distinct sound. Combine that with the continued fracturing of music genres, the rise of competing genres such as hip hop, the demise of rock as a dominant form, and the commodification of music through online sharing, and Bloodflowers was not able to sell or re-establish The Cure as a top-selling act. They did, however, embrace touring and headlining festivals, and since then it’s not hard to catch The Cure coming through town at least every two to three years. They’ve also taken to doing extended shows, and for Bloodflowers performed three separate ‘Trilogy’ shows in which the three albums were played in their entirety – which would have been cool if not completely dispiriting (the Berlin shows were issued as a DVD in 2003).
Labyrinth; Before Three; I Don't Know What's Going On \ The Cure (2004)
Underneath the Stars; The Hungry Ghost; This. Here and Now. With You. \ 4:13 Dream (2008)
The new century has seen two more Cure albums, both of which are very solid and draw on the signature Cure sound that’s not as dark as the Trilogy albums, but not as light or varied as Kiss Me or Wild Mood Swings. In this regard these albums might compare favourably to The Head on the Door. The one difference was, influenced by the small resurgence in rock bands and particularly bands influenced by The Cure (e.g. Interpol, The Killers), the new albums had a heavier edge and the guitar was less grandiose and a little more urgent.
The album The Cure (why not wait until your twelfth album to release a self-titled LP?) found a receptive audience and was buoyed by younger audiences discovering older music through the current acts. The album cracked the top ten in the UK and the US. 4:13 Dream however, came later when rock was dying again and did less well. What’s odd is The Cure seems more successful now in North America than in the UK.
The albums have many great songs and solid singles such as “The End of the World,” “alt.end,” and “The Perfect Boy.” Of course, none did much on the charts but in these modern times that doesn’t mean much (though oddly three of the singles from 4:13 Dream went to #1 in Spain, while the fourth reached #2 – good promoter there, I guess). The band continued to tour regularly and played always to large audiences. In 2013, on Robert’s 54th birthday, the band played an epic, four-hour show of fifty songs in Mexico City – it seems these days Robert is willing to give fans what they want, and then some.
The Cure was recorded with largely the same line-up as Wild Mood Swings and Bloodflowers, but 4:13 Dream saw the departure of Bamonte and O’Donnell and the return of Porl Thompson, which reunited three of The Cure’s longest serving band members: Smith, Gallup & Thompson. On tour the band has also been joined by Tolhurst and Gabrels. Smith seems to now have a stable of old friends and band mates that interchangeably come together and can effortlessly settle into The Cure. It’s a unique and fascinating culture of a band.
As the band takes the stage for their 40th anniversary (not sure who will be in the line-up at this point, though seems likely to be Smith, Gallup, O’Donnell, Cooper, and Gabrels) they will do so as giants of the modern rock era. They haven’t released new music in ten years, and it’s not certain if that will happen, but they continue to tour regularly. As it goes for other acts of their tenure, The Cure are beholden to their history, the deeply ingrained identity and long-held relationship with its fans, and the distinct and rich sound molded over thirteen impressive albums.
Likewise, there is Robert Smith and his instantly identifiable, iconic and charismatic voice, possibly only slightly less recognized than his signature look of ‘hair and lipstick.’ Now worn on his weightier, middle-aged frame the look is perhaps open as much to ridicule as appreciation (check out Sean Penn doing a turn as a recluse, Smith-like character travelling rural America in the movie This Must Be the Place), but The Cure simply wouldn’t be The Cure without its signature look. Smith has always been an enigma and deserves most of the credit for what The Cure has done. He is as he sings in the last song on this playlist, “Oh please don’t ask me who I am / Or when and where my life began / Or why I ended up like this or how / Don’t ask me what I was before / If I was anything at all / It’s nothing you can know about me now.”
If it’s hard to discern exactly who Robert Smith is or what The Cure has been – broody, dark rockers or a light and expressive pop act – it’s satisfying enough to just revel in their sound and enjoy the deep treasure of songs they have given us, whatever your preference. And if the Cure is beholden to its look and sound, so is modern rock beholden to the influence and legacy of this band.