Sharps & Flats

Cure fans know the band was at its best making shiny, happy pop. So why have the cartoon necrophiliacs gone back to wallowing in muddy gunk?

Published February 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's tempting to admire the Cure for sticking to the exact same sound on "Bloodflowers" that they've been using for the past 10 years in the face of enormous changes in the music scene. But it's far less so to listen to them rehash the same sound for the umpteenth time. "Bloodflowers" is the latest stage in the Cure's devolution in the past decade. Since their heyday in the mid-'80s, the Cure has gone from being a coy, witty pop band in necrophiliac drag to artsy cartoons who prefer to wallow in muddy guitars and goth clichis.

"Bloodflowers" is intended as the third part of a trilogy that includes "Pornography" (1982) and "Disintegration" (1989). That is bad news, because those are two of the band's most obtuse, overblown records. Though the 24-year-old band and its many incarnations spinning around frontman Robert Smith occupy the popular imagination as gloomy specters, the Cure have, at their best, specialized in shiny pop singles. Their most stunning album was the singles collection "Standing on the Beach" (1986), which was full of such darkly exuberant bursts of literary power-pop fervor and melancholy melodicism as the Camus-inspired "Killing an Arab," the classic "Boys Don't Cry" and the effervescent "The Caterpillar." (Not surprisingly, only one song from "Pornography," "The Hanging Garden," appeared on that compilation.) Another triumph followed in 1987, with the wildly passionate "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me." Thirteen years later, the envy anthem "Why Can't I Be You" still seems like our fame-hungry era's most fitting theme song.

But in 1989, they started down a depressing road with "Disintegration." The album itself had some moments (especially the gorgeous ballad "Lullaby"), but it saw the band abandoning the clean, shimmering textures of their previous work for psychedelic layers of noise, churning dirges and increasingly histrionic melodrama, especially on the hugely overrated single "Fascination Street" and on "Prayers for Rain." Though they've had a few bright moments since then, their last singles collection, "Galore," shows how far they've fallen since their apex in the '80s.

"Bloodflowers" is a continuation of this fall. Many of the songs begin promisingly, with glowing guitar figures and plaintive synthesizer cascades, but these hints of beauty get lost in a morass of feedback and ill-defined arrangements. "The Last Day of Summer" opens with the kind of irresistibly poignant, almost celestial melody that the Cure is famous for, but it goes flaccid and shapeless almost as soon as Smith's voice enters. And his uninspired dear-diary lyrics don't help much: "Nothing I want, nothing I dream, nothing is real/Nothing I think or believe in or say, nothing is true," he sings with maudlin seriousness.

You can listen to the entire album waiting for that spark of elation or empathy that the Cure can still produce. But unlike watching, say, the Rolling Stones, it's not fun to watch the Cure fail, especially for someone who clung to Smith's vision of ornate suffering like a life raft years ago. No matter how mediocre the Cure become, it's hardly surprising that the band's fans remain so deeply devoted. Their early alchemical power for turning loneliness, self-hate and misery into sublime, sparkling pop made depression and emotional delicacy seem romantic instead of humiliating; it's probably not a stretch to say that the Cure's music saved some fans' souls. Now the band is coasting on those achievements. Rather than trying to touch new lives, an album like "Bloodflowers" will satisfy old converts eager for anything with Smith's imprint. The newly maladjusted, though, will have to find themselves another pop prophet.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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