6. Wish (1992)
Wish is the Cure at their commercial apex, their stadium rock era. The band’s fan base had been expanding for years, and Wish debuted all the way at #2 on the US album chart. Despite its immediate success, critical opinion on Wish was mixed.
It’s not hard to understand why — it followed Disintegration. Nothing was ever going to make the enormous personal impact that Disintegration did for legions of fans who felt every word of it to their core. The Cure smartly resisted trying to recreate Disintegration, and moved on to an ambitious project with the same sweeping diversity of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
All of the parts that make the Cure tick are here. “Open” begins the album in a frantic state of drug-induced delirium set to a smoldering hard-rock groove. “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”, eight minutes of riveting drama, has become a cornerstone of the band’s concerts. “To Wish Impossible Things” and “Trust” are two of the most sublime ballads the Cure ever recorded.
The pop songs “Friday I’m in Love”, “High” and “Doing the Unstuck” are clever, catchy, and infused with that unique Cure weirdness. “Doing the Unstuck” is so ebullient that Smith explodes with joy: “Kick out the gloom! / Kick out the blues! / Tear out the pages with all the bad news!” he sings with breathless abandon. His skill as a lyricist is often overlooked, but it’s on full display throughout Wish.
Other standouts include the acoustic gem “A Letter to Elise”, the wickedly groovy “Wendy Time” and the devastating ballad “Apart”. The only bit of trouble is at closing, as the lumbering guitar colossus “End” isn’t quite as successful as “Open”.
As is the norm with the Cure, the b-sides are hard to separate from the album as a whole, and some of their greatest are culled from the Wish singles: “The Big Hand”, “Play”, “Scared as You”, “Halo”, and especially “This Twilight Garden”, a lush and dreamy masterpiece so beguiling that it’s hard to imagine what they were thinking by leaving it off the album.
5. Seventeen Seconds (1980)
The Cure lurches from off-kilter power-pop to pensive icy soundscapes on their brilliant second album, Seventeen Seconds. Although it wasn’t a huge smash, in retrospect it’s clear this is the album where it became apparent that the Cure wasn’t just an ordinary band.
Inspired by the chilly minimalism of albums like David Bowie’s Low and Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Robert Smith turned away from the jumpy punk-pop of the band’s debut. The lineup changed, too. Smith fired bassist Michael Dempsey and brought in two members from the Magazine Spies: bassist Simon Gallup and keyboardist Matthieu Hartley. They didn’t exist as a four-piece for long — this was Hartley’s only album with the group — but Gallup has endured as an essential component of the Cure’s sound.
Seventeen Seconds is an album shrouded in mist and doubt. The repetitive and hypnotic rhythms help create a tense atmosphere of dread. “A Forest”, the classic lead single, is riven with anxiety, fear and delusion. It became their first major hit, and the foundation upon which the rest of their career is built. The razor-sharp “Play for Today” easily could have followed into the UK Top 40 — that single quavery line of keyboard is now sung at top volume by every person in the crowd whenever the band plays it live.
“M” is withered with self-doubt and anxiety but is beautiful nonetheless. Like on the rest of the album, Smith’s guitars stay within the lines of the rhythm and provide plenty of sonic space and ambience. “In Your House” and “At Night” both point to the thick fog of gloom that would permeate Faith.
The title-song finalé is solemn, resigned, and morose. There seems little hope in Smith’s bleak lyrics: “The dream had to end / the wish never came true / and the girl starts to sing / 17 seconds / the measure of life.” The guitar soldiers on for another minute or so before giving up, leaving just a skeletal drum to beat finality.
4. Pornography (1982)
The maudlin despondency of Faith didn’t fade away — it morphed into a torrent of bitterness and feverish red rage. Pornography sounds just like it looks, with the distorted forms of the faceless band members emerging like tortured spirits writhing in hazy fire. Smith opens the album with a line that sets the tone, “It doesn’t matter if we all die!”
There is nothing else remotely like Pornography. As a recording, the album is a stunner. Its massive wall of sound is Phil Spector in Hell, with cavernous guitars, chilling synths and rhythms that are sometimes stilted, sometimes maniacal.
“One Hundred Years” is a bullet train riding the very edge of torture, on the last thread before despair extinguishes everything. It’s a grim exploration of the intense anguish and hopelessness that human existence can sometimes encompass, expressed in rage and raw-nerved desperation. “The Hanging Garden”, an animalistic drug-induced sexual frenzy set to fierce tribal drumming and a brain-shattering bass line, strangely enough crept into the UK Top 40.
“Siamese Twins” is a serpentine psychosexual melodrama with a tormented vocal dripping with venom. It’s an uncomfortable listen, which was no doubt the intent. “The Figurehead” is a behemoth that begins Side 2 with a rock solid rhythm, a rumbling bass and Smith’s despondent self-loathing. It’s followed by two of the album’s finest tracks: “A Strange Day”, with its shivery layer of guitars, and the icy and desolate “Cold”.
By the time we get to the title track we’ve slipped into a roaring nightmare, a hurricane of disorienting chaos from which Smith shouts maniacal ravings like, “One more day like today and I’ll kill you! / a desire for flesh, and real blood.” It’s clear his mood has not noticeably improved since the beginning of the album. “Pornography” ends with him wailing “but it’s too late”! and “we must fight this sickness / find a cure!” If only we knew the disease.
You gotta be in the right frame of mind for Pornography or it’ll take you places you won’t want to go. It distorts reality. But when you need that trip, it’s a sonic universe like no other.