With set lists extending past the thirty song mark and the rarest of songs appearing out of the fog on any given night, The Cure has never taken the easy road with their legacy and their fans cherish the dedication. The immense influence of The Cure creeps into so many different styles of popular music, keeping it all straight is as futile an undertaking as Smith often makes life itself sound. One step closer to six feet under myself this April, The Cure’s warm darkness provides comfort even in its most hopeless moments and I started to dig back in recently.
From choppy post-punk to dense atmospherics, the band’s sonic evolution is a fascinating journey and the band’s 1996 album title Wild Mood Swings aptly captures their overall aesthetic. From the first time I heard the cassette compilation Standing On A Beach, I was enthralled by The Cure but it took a few years to gets my mind around all the different directions they’ve taken as a band. While most fans would likely reach the same conclusion about the band’s best and worst album, the more interesting discussions are where all the other albums ultimately reside in our hearts. Here is how my list shakes out. What about you?
#13 The Cure (2004)
After 2000’s paint-by-numbers Bloodflowers, Robert Smith was not wrong to try shaking up the mixture for the band’s next album. And I’m guessing that producer Ross Robinson was not that busy after spending the last half of the 90s producing Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Vanilla Ice. However, filtering the band’s unique sound through Robinson’s brain and deciding its worthy of an eponymous release must baffle even the most ardent Smith loyalist. “The End Of the World” sounds like Bush trying to sound like The Cure and opener “Lost” sounds like The Cure trying to sound like Nine Inch Nails. Was Robert Smith just fucking with us at this point? The album makes a strong case for The Cure’s influence on certain elements of nu-metal which I missed while avoiding the genre as much as possible at the end of the century. Bizkit’s magnum crapus “Break Stuff” opens with the line “It’s just one of those days where you don’t want to wake-up” which probably aligns emotionally with most of Robert Smith’s thoughts over morning coffee. The fact that I just listened to ten seconds of “Break Stuff” after having to look up how to spell Limp Bizkit three times is enough to make me resent The Cure just a little!
#12 4:13 Dream (2008)
Opening with the luminous “Underneath The Stars”, 4:13 Dream promises a more traditional experience after the train wreck that was The Cure. After the opener, the album loses some ambition and settles for being a collection of odd pop constructs that harkens back to Wish. While “The Reasons Why” isn’t the first Cure song that explores suicide, the matter-of-fact lyrics lack any mystery and offer no room for interpretation. On their best work, Smith’s lyrics painted dark scenes with edges blurry enough to shape shift around the listener’s own emotions. His brush feels too heavy with age. To be fair, there comes a point when being one of the biggest bands in the world leaves you wondering what all the gloom was about to begin with. “Sirensong” rewrites “Just Like Heaven” which makes it a little familiar and mildly enjoyable. At this point in their career, need we ask anything more of The Cure?
#11 The Top (1984)
After the emotional tumult of the band’s Dark Trilogy (Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography), Robert Smith shifted gears and released some of the band’s quirkiest pop songs which ended up on the Japanese Whispers compilation. “Let’s Go To Bed” and “The Lovecats” helped break The Cure commercially but the album that followed felt nothing like the singles. The Top opens with “Shake Dog Shake” as dense waves of distortion pick up where the band left off on Pornography. “The Caterpillar” offers some of the eccentric playfulness that they would eventually reach on later albums but the entire album lacks any discernible cohesiveness. A transitional album musically and personnel wise, The Top is most interesting as a peek into a band in flux.
#10 Wild Mood Swings (1996)
The band’s ever rotating line-up eventually caught up to them on Wild Mood Swings. While the title does nail the music inside, what we love and expect from The Cure drifts just out of reach on most of the songs here. Opener “Want” raises expectations but the quirkiness of their pop songs has lost their charm on songs like “The 13th”. After “Just Like Heaven” and “Friday I’m In Love”, “Mint Car” feels too easy for Smith. Sure, it’s almost as beautiful as the band’s best pop moments but there is a laziness creeping into the work. While a few of the songs are compilation worthy, the overall experience of Wild Mood Swings is the first stumble for the band since The Top.
#9 Bloodflowers (2000)
On the paint by numbers “The Last Day of Summer”, Robert Smith laments that “nothing is new” and Bloodflowersupholds his prophecy. Far more calculating than Pornography and far less transcendent than Disintegration, his claims of Bloodflowers being the end of a trilogy brings to mind the forgettable Godfather Part III. While it checks almost every box on the goth scorecard from slow building atmospheres to reverb drenched instruments that bounce around Robert Smith’s personal sarcophagus, there isn’t enough substance to live up to the two albums it supposedly brings to a conclusion.
#8 Three Imaginary Boys (1979)
Unlike every studio album that followed, The Cure’s debut album sounds of a specific time and place. Rising from the still smoldering ashes of English punk, bands like Gang Of Four, Wire, and The Cure combined serrated guitars with melodic bass lines as post-punk took the punk ethos and added layer upon layer of art school imagination. This is an utterly captivating debut within the post-punk framework but just a hint of where the band was headed. The unlikely cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Foxy Lady” deconstructs the rock god mythology that was almost comical by 1979. Had the album originally been released with singles “Boy’s Don’t Cry”, “Killing An Arab”, and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” (as it was a year later under the title Boys Don’t Cry), the debut would feel far more substantial now. However, the post-punk charm of a young band about to take flight on one of alternative music’s greatest journeys qualifies this as essential listening.
#7 Pornography (1982)
Ahh, this is what the bottom of hell sounds like. The final installment in the band’s Dark Trilogy opens with Robert Smith singing “It doesn’t matter if we all die” and his sincerity cuts like a thousand tiny daggers. Whereas there was a chilling stillness at the heart of Faith, Pornography pours out of the speakers like the waves of blood that chase Danny around the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. More upbeat and psychedelic than the previous two installments of Smith’s downward spiral, the music packs plenty of punch but the songs are short of identity. Within the context of the trilogy, the album feels more important than it does alone. Smith signs off singing “I must fight this sickness” on the title track and the gorgeous pop songs that emerge on forthcoming albums speak to his victory.
#6 Wish (1992)
Trying to replicate Disintegration would have come up a failure so The Cure wisely shifted gears again on Wish. At the time, the album felt “light” in the shadow of the band’s magnum opus but the clever pop songs have held up as some of their most beloved singles and “A Letter To Elise” keeps Robert Smith’s hopeless romanticism burning for the more gothic leaning listeners. The more I listen to this album now, the more I wish I had fully embraced it in 1991. From the droning atmosphere of “Apart” to the off-kilter pop of “Wendy Time”, everything The Cure does well is done very well on Wish.
#5 Seventeen Seconds (1980)
The gap between a first and second album rarely feels this wide. Like Joy Division’s two studio albums, Seventeen Seconds sounds like it was recorded on an icy moon far removed from lush, wet England. New bassist Simon Gallup provides rigid melodic work allowing the guitars to focus on the swirling atmosphere that helps reveal a songwriter starting to come undone. On the title track, Smith sings “feeling is gone” over a slow dirge that reinforces the emotion and sets in motion a growing darkness within the band’s style. “A Forest” builds slowly over two minutes before Smith finally starts to sing, a template that will become a noticeable part of The Cure’s style moving forward. As a singular listening experience, Seventeen Seconds offers little hope and wraps the listener in an unsettled calm that borders on uncomfortable. Much like Bowie’s Low, this album lures you into a sonic wormhole that will run its course over three brilliantly realized albums.
#4 The Head On the Door (1985)
Anchored by stone cold classics “In Between Days” and “Close To Me”, The Head On the Door is the moment when The Cure became commercial juggernauts while retaining their unique identity. Album cuts like “A Night Like This” are exceptionally well-crafted pop songs; a gift that Robert Smith had long had in his arsenal and one that he finally unleashes to its fullest for an entire album. The intro to “The Screw” builds the song around a post-punk riff (sort of a goth reinvention of Melle Mel’s “White Lines”) but allows some funkiness to creep into the mix which would become more prevalent on the band’s massive next album. The Head On the Door marries Smith’s melancholy with bright new melodic textures to create one of the richest albums in the band’s discography.
#3 Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)
On this sprawling album, The Cure takes pieces from every album which precedes it and supersizes them for stadiums. “Just Like Heaven” and “Hot Hot Hot!!!” build on the pop momentum of The Head On the Door while the funereal “The Kiss” harkens back to the band’s Dark Trilogy. No matter which side of The Cure you love, every angle is covered on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Is it a big colorful mess? Sure, most double albums typically are, but the quality of the songs from start to finish makes this a beautiful disaster. “How Beautiful You Are” and “Catch” are prime examples of the band’s ability to match lyrics to mood. Everything is a bit off kilter throughout and some songs could be shorter but like Hunter S. Thompson’s writing, you would never dream of editing it.
#2 Faith (1981)
The second installment in the band’s Dark Trilogy, Faith moves deeper into the grayness that the band set in motion on Seventeen Seconds. On the seven minute title track (sequenced last on the album as is “Seventeen Seconds” and “Pornography”), Smith intones – “rape me like a child christened in blood” under veils of reverb that cements the listener in place. Lyrically, the album looks for salvation in a time of mental instability and comes away empty-handed as nameless saints silently watch over funerals. Much like the album cover, there is no hint of color in these songs as the band descends even further into hopelessness. Unlike Joy Division, The Cure would continue to evolve but Faith offers the same experience as Unknown Pleasures and stands as one of post-punk’s most significant moments and plants the seeds for goth music to bloom into a formidable style that never loses relevance as styles change.
#1 Disintegration (1989)
The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. The Bends or OK Computer. There is no “or” with The Cure. Someone else might be able to make a case against Disintegration being the band’s best album but I cannot get there as much as I love the earlier material. The bass line in “Fascination Street” deserves a thousand words alone. Unlike Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the album never shifts under your feet and the consistent vibe proves that the band’s trademark gloominess will always be its strongest asset. While a major single, “Love Song” is merely a brief respite from the overall melancholic mood as songs build slowly and most eclipse the five minute mark as the band’s concise pop sensibilities are left to wither and die. The twisting agony of earlier Cure records felt almost claustrophobic in their intensity whereas everything on Disintegration explodes across a midnight sky where the guitars shimmer like stars and we can share in Robert Smith’s sadness. Ultimately, it’s that emotional connection between the listener and the song that makes this such a special album for even casual fans of the band. Joy Division opened the 80s with Closer and The Cure bookended the decade with their own gothic masterpiece. Everything that came between those two albums ultimately pales in comparison.