Clean Again

Robert Smith is my hero because he didn't kill himself after he made Pornography. That 1982 album is the spike in the Cure's career, the high point and the easiest thing to get impaled on; it's the one that begins "It doesn't matter if we all die" and ends "I must fight this sickness/Find a cure." Smith is staring suicide in the face for the entire record; his voice sounds like he's trying not to cry or vomit. It would have been really easy for him to make it his Closer or In Utero, and he didn't. It's like a hero myth or something, where what saves him is his name: That's the sickness, but I'm the Cure.

So he returned to the realm of the living to become its biggest cult hero (shh: This is a legend, okay?), with a ceremonial costume that caricatured the garments in which he faced down Death: a spiky black wig that stands for the sticky horrible thoughts that poured out of his head, smeared lipstick for sexual loathing and confusion, baggy black clothing because it looks cool. The swallows and quavers in his voice became a signature affectation. He could get away with anything—mugging through cheery little videos, inflating all of his songs with arena-rock pomp, saving the world on South Park—because he'd come back from that moment, and was therefore entitled to do anything he liked.

This is satisfying as mythology goes, but the last couple of Cure albums still sucked; the other kind of cure is where you blow smoke at something until it's dried out and preserved forever. Their greatest-hits-part-2 comp Galore falls off abruptly after 1990 (with the exception of "Friday I'm in Love," the kind of clockwork pop song that Smith appears to be so good at it bores him). The albums were filled with half-baked grooves-plus-words, and the words lost their wit and scariness. "The world is neither fair nor unfair," he declares on the new Bloodflowers. That sounds like the same kind of existentialist toss-up he's been offering all along (making a choice is necessary but impossible: I'm alive, I'm dead, I'm the stranger), but it comes off as a sententious pronouncement on How It Is.

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The Cure
Bloodflowers
Elektra
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Smith's strong point as a lyricist is radical subjectivity—the kind that's so intense it can only hint at a world outside its subject's confusion and unhappiness. ("I will never be clean again," he chanted on Pornography; seven years later, his biggest hit went "You make me feel like I am clean again.") He's an idol not because he can speak to his constituency, but because he speaks for them and the scary voices inside their heads. So: What does a rich, successful 40-year-old artist with a famously wonderful marriage have to be confused and unhappy about? Not being able to be confused and unhappy on cue about anything else anymore, when that's the source of his art. That's the angle Smith is milking on Bloodflowers, which he's effectively announced will be the final Cure album.

It is also, obviously and explicitly, the last angle he can milk. "The fire is almost out and there's nothing left to burn," he crows in "39." Whatever could that title mean? All that remains are the wig, the lipstick, and the clown outfit—the accoutrements of the caricature of the sick man who made Pornography. So he throws them in and watches them melt.

The sound of Bloodflowers is "another Cure album," no more, no less—they stopped challenging themselves instrumentally 10 years ago with the techno dabbling of Mixed Up (Sleater-Kinney fans might want to compare its remake of "A Forest" with "Dance Song '97"). They've gone back to their most comfortable territory, which means abandoning their hits' perkiness and concision. The new album is all murky, midtempo jams on a few chords, with an average length over six minutes. For those of us who prefer the inside of Smith's head to the outside, that's good news. Bloodflowers's centerpiece (front-loaded at track 2) is "Watching Me Fall," one of the most overwhelming things he's ever written. For 11 minutes, he drags his voice and guitar from note to note in a barely broken line, despairing convincingly about separation from self in general and his irreparable outgrowing of his constructed identity in particular. "I'm watching me scream," he screams—not even "myself."

On the album, his burnout is the focus; onstage at Roseland two weeks ago, it was the context, and the blandly professional backup crew didn't help. In a not-too-fruitful attempt to keep himself interested, Smith eschewed almost all of the Cure's pop moments in favor of bombastic, listless churns from his old records. When he dragged out a handful of Pornography tunes, they conjured up the thought of an aging Ian Curtis and his pickup band reviving "Atrocity Exhibition" in 2000. Which would be better than having no Ian Curtis at all.

Smith has talked idly about quitting before, but this is a good place to stop: after the Cure have enjoyed the late-blooming fruits of the moment when he decided to keep living, and before they lose touch with it altogether. The first line of the new album is "when we look back at it all, as I know we will." The uncertainty they've traded on for 20 years, of whether Smith will be there to look back, is absent. But cures end when the disease is gone. Go on. Just walk away. Your choice is made.

 
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