Why does the Cure have to keep reminding us that they’re the Cure?
When all was said and done, when the election had ended and all of the rage and righteousness of that year had died away, 2004’s self-titled effort from the Cure was really kind of a mess. Helmed by someone best known as “that guy who did production for Limp Bizkit”, it was a heavy, angry effort that sounded as though it made the conscious decision to forego tunes for straight-up, all-out catharsis. As such, other than the decidedly backward-looking “alt.end”, it was this utterly unpleasant to listen to mess of heavy guitars and fuzzy production that left no impression other than the fact that it felt like a 10,000-pound weight on the chest of whoever was listening to it.
Still, after an hours-long session with it on a particularly dark, depressed night, The Cure still rather easy to respect in the morning. Despite its willingness to slash your face with blades made of gloom and black eyeliner, it felt as though the Cure was reaching outside of the bounds it had been working within for the 25 or so years previous to that album. After Bloodflowers, an intentional and only halfway realized return to the sound of Disintegration, the mere idea that the Cure could do something else was worth a few handshakes and kudos, at least.
Even so, it’s another election year, and as such, it must be time for another album from the Cure, and that album, titled 4:13 Dream, sees the Cure unfortunately spinning its wheels once again.
Yes, I know, it’s their 13th album, and perhaps they’re simply trying to get comfortable in their latest guise as a four-piece outfit (hence the title of the album), but that doesn’t excuse the blatant nostalgia baiting of a song like opening track “Underneath the Stars”. Opening with the exact same tinkly noises as “Pictures of You” is a good way to say “we’re trying to rewrite Disintegration one more freaking time”, true or not as such a statement might be. Musically, the track fits right in with the era as well, with an extended introduction line and a trajectory line that looks uncomfortably like that of an EKG attached to the recently deceased. I mean, it’s pretty and all, but the danger of so openly courting nostalgia like this is that a new entry into old canon is simply never going to live up to the standard that those who’ve come to live with said canon have built for it. The Cure are never going to write an ‘80s era tune that lives up to their actual ‘80s era tunes. The old ones are too good, and too loved, and too familiar for new ones to have much of an impact.
Granted, most of the rest of the tracks evoke Wish (“The Only One”) or even Wild Mood Swings (“This. Here and Now. With You.”) than they do Disintegration—and “Sleep When I’m Dead” is even simply a new recording of a song written around the era of The Head on the Door—but you understand the point by now.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable, too, if there were absolutely no tracks that took the Cure formula and did something new with it. The best track on the entire album is a crazy little thing called “Freakshow” that unapologetically bounces around like a garage band song on which Robert Smith’s oh-so identifiable vocal tics sound utterly at home. It’s then followed by the gorgeous “Sirensong”, a song which, while not entirely absent the problems of the rest of the album, still finds favor via the interplay of the keyboards and a lovely little slide-guitar line. That neither of the two break the three-minute barrier suggests that, perhaps, the new incarnation of the Cure finds greatness inspired by the urgency of constraint, but maybe that’s reading too much into a small sample.
The album even ends on a high point, with a song predictably titled “It’s Over”, which actually happens to be an urgent, fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll tune that may well signal another new direction for the band that could actually work. See, it’s not that the band is bereft of new ideas, it’s that the old ones are starting to feel like a crutch.
I can concede that in the right circumstance, on the right day, with a peaceful mist-like rain turning slowly to snow as daylight turns to dusk, 4:13 Dream is certainly going to be a pleasing listen for someone. As far as backward-leaning songs go, these are fairly upbeat, and Mr. Smith at least sounds as though his singing voice has found him again. The tunes are occasionally catchy, if too often merely adequate, and the instrumentation feels like a familiar, if torn, blanket when it’s not trying too hard. Still, the sound that one immediately associates with the Cure simply hasn’t been gone long enough for it to be welcome again. A band like Metallica gets a hero’s reception for returning to its roots simply because it’s spent nearly two decades shedding those roots. That’s what it would take for the Cure’s old sound to sound fresh again; it’s hard not to fear that 4:13 Dream signals that they’ve run out of time to do so.