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It's hard not to write about a band like The Cure, especially their early years, in the first person. Their early work just felt incredibly personal and spoke to legions of disaffected youth, real or imagined, across the world. The Cure was the first band that I can say I was truly obsessed with (okay, after Duran Duran, maybe), and I'm talking "listening-to-their-records-in- bed-with-your-ear-up-against-your-boombox-trying-to-decipher-every-lyric-to- write-down-in-your-notebook" obsessed. I was in the sixth grade when I first heard "Close to Me," off of The Head on the Door, and I immediately asked my parents to buy me Happily Ever After, a cassette release which contained both Seventeen Seconds and Faith. I was completely shocked by what I heard, and not just because of how different it sounded from "Close to Me." I can safely say that listening to these records at such a young age changed me forever (and it was probably the first time I had heard a British singer sound so damn British, thrilling my young ears). This was unlike any other music I had heard on the radio at the time, so minimal and spare, yet evocative, moving, and yes, depressing. Teasing elements of the beginnings of post-punk and new wave; a dash of goth, minus the excess; Robert Smith's guitar playing - which was so great for all the times he chose not to play - all of these were new concepts for me, although, of course, I was unaware of what they meant at the time. From that day I was hooked and quickly devoured everything they released, up to Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, their current album at the time. I began to fall out of love in the beginning of high school and was over it by the time college rolled around, but hearing these reissues reminds me of the impact that The Cure once had on me and, not surprisingly, still does. Lovingly put together by Robert Smith and company, everything about these reissues was carefully thought out: packaging, bonus tracks, re-mastering, layout - all details that make these more than just a repackaged rehash.
Coming after Three Imaginary Boys and the singles and B-sides collection Boys Don't Cry, Seventeen Seconds was a huge step forward in songwriting and texture for Robert Smith. The trio expanded to four, dumping bass player Michael Dempsey for Simon Gallup, who remains with the band to this day, and adding keyboard player Matthieu Hartley. There are several classics on the record: "A Forest" is still a staple of live shows, an incredibly eerie song with its simple, repeated bass melody and minor-key chord structure, and "Play for Today," cut from the same mold as "Jumping Someone Else's Train" but with a more refined attitude and outstanding bass playing by Gallup. From start to finish, this record shines. It's a journey in minimalism and the uncertainty that comes after punk rock. From the opening drones of "A Reflection" through the lo-fi experimentation of "Three," it's readily apparent that Smith had set out to push himself in his writing. Gallup's bass often takes the lead here, as on "Secrets" and the title track, while Smith's guitar playing often provides the bedrock, occasionally rising to the forefront with the simple but effective solo at the end of "A Forest."
The bonus disc here contains some rarities and live versions of the original batch of songs. For all but the most obsessed completist, the latter are the real reason to listen to this disc. Several songs appear under the moniker of Cult Hero, which was a former one-off project by Smith, Gallup, and a postman named Bell. These are relatively fluffy disco-punk and fuzz-rock excursions that you'll probably pass over on subsequent spins through the bonus materials. There are two home demos: "Another Journey By Train" and "Secrets," which are quite muffled, but offer a fleeting look at the origins of these songs. All said, the live tracks are the prize here, all recorded in 1980. The sound quality is excellent, and you can hear the band fully involved in songs like "M" and "At Night." They also play "Three" and "The Final Sound" - who knew that these were ever performed live? Ending on a live version of "A Forest," these concert recordings are an excellent look at the band as a live unit from the period right after the release of Seventeen Seconds.
A definite leap forward in terms of darkness and concept, this was an album that was as much influenced by Robert Smith's grappling with religion as it was by drug use, which was increasing for the band during this period. From the flange bass notes of "The Holy Hour" through the funereal "All Cats are Grey" and on through the plodding title track, this record is an exercise in enduring depression. And that's a good thing. The two "punk" numbers, "Primary" and "Doubt," are full of vitriol and piss, while still maintaining the overall gloom of the record. "Other Voices" is a highlight; bouncing bassline and drums, guitar kicking in with a matching but adverse chord progression, Robert Smith sounding more and more like he will in years to come. The best on the record may be "The Drowning Man," a beautiful song as misty and socked in as a British coastline, with a guitar and bassline that recall early New Order, rising and falling in descending single note patterns. The keyboards are thick here, even with Matthieu Hartley's departure, adding an almost symphonic element to songs like "The Funeral Party." "Carnage Visors," an almost 30 minute long soundtrack to a tour film only available previously on cassette, is also included on the first disc. The bonus disc here contains more home demos, some of which are unrecognizable early versions of songs and some of which were used as studio guide tracks. There are a bunch of excellent live tracks as well, and the audio is more than passable here. Also included is the single "Charlotte Sometimes," a song that sounds more like it was from the Pornography session and which has always been a favorite of many Cure fans.
These three albums get progressively darker, and Pornography is the apex of gloom before the band's temporary dissolution and Robert Smith's forays into more electronic-pop excursions of The Top and the singles collections The Walk and Japanese Whispers. The mechanical pulse of electronic drums permeates the background of Pornography, and Robert Smith's guitar is anguished sounding, something he was purposely striving for, according to the liner notes. The lyrics are full of disturbing imagery of imminent death and nightmarish scenarios. Nevertheless, at the time of its release Pornography was their most popular album to date. "100 Years" sets the tone from the outset, with its caterwauling guitar bends and Smith's strained delivery. "The Hanging Garden" romps along with an almost militaristic snare drum tap, Simon Gallup's bass following suit. Two of the best tracks on this record are "Siamese Twins" and "A Strange Day," both of which are slight departures from the general sound. The former is a spare song with empty spaces that are as effective as the cacophony of the title track, a Middle-Eastern flair permeating the mix. "A Strange Day" is moving pop music, a three-chord exercise that hints at Smith's songwriting to come, with a jarring guitar solo that occurs after every chorus. The bonus disc here contains more of the same: home and studio demos of many of the album tracks, live versions from their tour supporting the record (that are notably not as well recorded as on the other bonus discs), and one oddity, another soundtrack for a tour film titled "Airlock."
Pornography was the end of an era for The Cure. The band would basically be an afterthought for almost two years, as Smith played with Siouxsie and the Banshees, collaborated on a project called The Glove with the Banshees' Steve Severin, and recorded ever more drug-fueled electro-pop. Future releases would leave the stark Gothicism of this era behind, but not necessarily the underlying shadows of the music. However, more success, fame, and record sales were not far off for the band. The early years of The Cure are remarkably captured in these reissues, and hopefully Rhino will keep them coming. SEE ALSO: www.thecure.com
SEE ALSO: www.rhino.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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