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Strong medicine
Robert Smithís forceful return to the Cure
Classic Cure

ē Boys Donít Cry (PVC, 1980)

ē Pornography (Elektra, 1982)

ē The Head on the Door (Elektra, 1985)

ē Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Elektra, 1987)

ē Disintegration (Elektra, 1989)

The prickly spines of despair rise with the first notes of the Cureís new album. Itís a sign that the band have returned to classic form after a four-year break from the studio, wrapping gnarled sonic tapestries around a sense of tragic romance thatís the result of songwriter and frontman Robert Smithís habit of hurling himself headlong into love or hate. In the Cureís best tunes, Smith has been either hopeless or helpless: flummoxed by jealousy and frustration in "Why Canít I Be You," drunk on bliss in "Friday Iím in Love."

Smithís misery makes for good company right from the start of The Cure (Geffen). "I canít find myself," he sings quietly as guitars strum the introduction to "Lost." The six-strings soon grow more strident, adding chords that clash into an almost atonal grind that builds in intensity. As the sonic whirlwind escalates, keyboards lay down a troubling static tone and the guitars blow tumbleweeds of distortion and the roaring surf of a phase shifter through the mix. Right along with that, Smith gets in deeper touch with his alienation, but not with his heart and mind. He canít quite articulate his inability to decide whether he should ask a departing lover to stay, and he canít understand why he isnít able to swerve around the roadblock to his own feelings and find his misplaced soul. Itís all a little abstract, but very raw and dramatic as the fever in his voice rises with the tide of the Cureís focused, gritty playing.

That playing, and the vulnerability and anger in Smithís lyrics and vocal performances, makes The Cure the Cureís best album since 1989ís potent Disintegration (Polydor). Itís packed with little sonic tsunamis that are all the more impressive because the band ó now with Smith and Perry Bamonte on guitars, Roger OíDonnell on keyboards, Simon Gallop on bass, and Jason Cooper drumming ó recorded their musical performances live in the studio. The finer points of layering feedback and keyboard pads, as those floating beds of synthesizer sound are called, were left until after the guts of each tune had been stitched into place.

At times, the Cureís most gnashing new arrangements and the fury of Smithís voice take on epic proportions. As "Labyrinth" reveals its layout, the guitars pester you the same way a sense of disconnection seems to be nagging Smithís narrator. He canít find anything familiar in his home, his world, his significant other, until he finally warbles and sighs, "Everything has to have changed. . . . Or itís me." Itís an existential nightmare. Smithís character is lost in a familiar terrain suddenly turned alien. And that feeling surfaces again and again in The Cureís songs.

Maybe thatís because Smith is trying to come to terms with something larger than himself for the first time on a Cure album. After all, the world has changed since his groupís last uneven disc, 2000ís Bloodflowers (Fiction/EastWest). Terrorism has gone worldwide, poverty and unemployment in Western countries have risen, the thousands of heat-related deaths in Europe last year provided the first grim proof of global warmingís awful effect, and ideological fractures between nations are running as deep as they were during the height of the Cold War. The list goes on more than long enough to make the head of a worldly romantic like Smith wobble.

All this becomes pointed on "Us or Them," the only explicitly political song Smith has written. Thereís also 1979ís Albert CamusĖinspired "Killing an Arab," which became controversial after its release because of racial strife in the Cureís England. Now itís timely again, and itís among the numbers that many American radio stations have banned for their "inflammatory" lyrics.

At any rate, "Us or Them" is an angry rant bristling with punk energy. The song opens with popping bass notes and the tearing noise of a pick sliding across hyper-amplified guitar strings. "There is no terror in my heart," Smith sings, renouncing the fear our leaders have tried to instill in us so that weíll approve their actions. He adds, "I live in knowledge of real truth/And all my gods are great," mocking George W. Bush. Then he takes dead aim at the Bush/Blair coalition: "The doleful cant of a bigot/Blinded by fear and hate. . . . Oh the biggest lie I ever heard/How sick in your mind and your soul." As the guitars get louder, crunching into a progression a stoneís throw from Jimi Hendrixís "Purple Haze," Smith amps up to the vocal climax: "I donít want you anywhere near me/Get your fucking world out of my head/I donít want your Ďus and them.í . . . And the only way this ends is me."

The title of the next tune, "Alt.End," makes it an obvious postscript set to an armada of wah-wah guitar. "Yeah itís a big bright beautiful world/Just the other side of the door," Smith cries out. Although the number, with its references to "running out on you," works as another of his many relationship songs, the lyricsí variations on the lines "I want this to be the end/I donít want to start again/I want this to be the end/Where all my dreams came true" seem a deliberate jab at religious fanatics, whether theyíre born again or preparing to be rewarded in heaven for an act of violence.

So itís fair to think of The Cure as a protest album, but with so much of the desperate longing for love and the feedback-soaked images of personal betrayal and emotional pain that Smith is known for also ringing in the discís terse yet sonically expansive tracks, it tells a more complete rock-and-roll story.

The tale of the Cure itself is something of a wonder. It seems a legion of fans had been quietly, patiently waiting for the band to emerge from a hibernation that seemed more like a termination, with its members scattering and Smith talking about making his first solo album. That solo album never materialized, but when the Cure themselves did at this Mayís Coachella Festival in California, they, along with the Pixies, were regarded as the eventís prodigal sons ó which along with mainstream airplay for groups like Dashboard Confessional and Modest Mouse seems to be marking a resurgence in the popularity of alternative rock. The Cure have even managed to build an early-Lollapalooza-like festival around themselves called "Curiosa" that will hit the Tweeter Center in Mansfield with Interpol, the Rapture, Mogwai, and other relative alterna-rock youngsters on August 7.

Originally called Easy Cure, the band were formed in 1976 by Smith and his schoolmates Lol Tolhurst, a drummer, and Michael Dempsey, a bassist. "Killing an Arab" was among their first demo tapes, and it established the groupís edgy way with the architecture of pop songs. Given Smithís romantic spirit and taste for dark eye shadow and moussed hair, the Cure helped blueprint goth rock even as they musically outstripped peers like Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose Hyaena (Geffen) Smith produced. (He even played guitar in a mid-í80s touring version of the Banshees.)

Although the Cure developed a fervent cult following, it wasnít until their sixth album, 1985ís The Head on the Door (Elektra), that they cracked the Billboard Top 100. Their real breakthrough came two years later, when Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Elektra) crystallized Smithís skill with pop hooks and melodies and scored four radio singles including the Cureís first Top 40 hit, "Just like Heaven." With success came the usual trench digging by older fans, who felt the group had compromised the more snarling nature of their earlier discs, abandoning their original punk-era sensibility. But with Disintegration, Smith proved he could walk the line between savvy songwriting and daring soundscapes, and he does so once again within the sparer, more musically aggressive framework of the arrangements for The Cure.

Since the release of those two evolutionary albums, the bandís swirling balance of melody, hooks, and creative aural topography has become unmistakable ó theyíre as recognizable within a few notes as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, or, for that matter, their comeback-trail peers the Pixies. Itís that singularity of musical character that defines a great band or artist. But with The Cure, the Cure one-up most of their classic-rock peers with. Unlike the ex-Zeps or ex-Sabs, or even R.E.M., for that matter, they can still make a lively, commanding album.

The two-stage "Curiosa" Festival with the Cure, Interpol, the Rapture, Mogwai, Muse, the Cooper Temple Clause, Melissa Auf Der Maur, and Head Automatica comes to the Tweeter Center on Saturday August 7. Tickets are $35, $40, and $50; call (617) 423-NEXT.

Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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