The Cure’s Join the Dots: B-Sides & Rarities: 1978–2001: The Fiction Years is titled with the exhaustiveness that can, in every sense, characterize box sets. Its four discs are atypical of the form, however, and they come at a time when young bands—New York’s Rapture, most notably and successfully—cite Robert Smith’s London outfit as a holy source, a development nobody apart from the Cure’s planet of black-clad fans might have guessed. Here, Smith has compiled B sides, but also alternate mixes and stray compilation-album appearances, into a set that will stand alongside the Cure’s most lasting albums. He doesn’t mess with demos or tapes of broadcast appearances or answering-machine greetings—none of the audio effluvium that often charms compilers; according to the notes, Smith lavished a record geek’s attention on B sides. Now, in chronological order, he lines them up.
The Cure sold records, claiming and saving lives during the ’80s, when Smith and his alternating sidemen fit in nowhere in the U.S. except in the haze of “post-punk English rock.” They weren’t commercialistas, didn’t skew political, and, for all Smith’s romantic and literary concerns, didn’t play as hostile art snobs. Jon Pareles in the Times once suggested them as kings of “mope-rock.” At least it wasn’t “smeared-lipstick rock,” which was where other U.S. commentators placed them. But the Cure were not about categories; they were about obsession. I can remember seeing the Psychedelic Furs kill at some horrible club in Richmond during the early ’80s, and driving back to Charlottesville in the still Virginia night thinking, “They were good. But they weren’t the Cure.”
As Join the Dots shows, the Cure did not start out noisy and evolve into refinement; refinement, in the sense of manipulating unruly sound with the fastidiousness of Quincy Jones doing high-market slick, they had from the beginning, when they B-sided their 1979 “Killing an Arab” single with “10:15 Saturday Night,” patiently sustaining single-note passages for lengths usually unattainable among under-30 guitarists. “Plastic Passion,” their next B side, continued this “precision,” as Police fans called it. But the Cure were not going to ascend logically to the high-end studio rock of Synchronicity. No, the Cure, although they continued to ring out clean riffs, would evolve into the most meticulous song-based gnarliness rock music has heard, the music’s definitive dark swirl of playfulness and mud, anxiety and dreams, sex and flowers. They were going to become the actual sonic youth. Of course, Robert Smith, a lot of times, would feel bad. What helped was that he was one of the two or three best rock singers ever.
Consider “This Twilight Garden,” which begins the you-can’t-believe-how-good-this-is third disc here. It is 1992. The Cure already have made huge hits as perfect and non-verbal as the videos for 1987’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, recorded their masterpiece with dramatic conflict and barbed wire on ’89’s Disintegration, and now have emerged something like smiling with the warm-hearted Wish album. Smith is doing that unreal thing he does where his tenor sounds as though it’s coming comfortably and richly from the middle of his skull; it flows like Sinatra, sells imperfections like Jagger, soars like Al Green, enunciates—and, at the same time, goes into muted trumpet-like qualities—like Robert Smith. He sings as a man so at home with words—with where words and emotions escalate into lit—that he doesn’t think twice about leaving the quality of words in the dust, going off into the beyond-words. (Bono, Smith’s only current peer, does this.) The windswept, English-seaside guitar-and-keyboard melody and arrangement sound—like the Strokes—worked on with the end goal being not sounding worked on. It is minor key, but it doesn’t flatter the mood as does “Play,” the next B side, on which the Cure are as distinctive. You listen to other rock, and when you’re lucky you think, this is excellent. But it’s not the Cure.