Jason Cooper joined the Cure in 1995. Although he plays all the drum parts of the band’s extensive catalog spectacularly and adds plenty of energy to the live environment, he is still perceived as the untested fledgling on record, even though his tenure now matches that of his well-loved predecessor, Boris Williams. The Cure, a quintet featuring Cooper but revolving, as usual, around leader and songwriter Robert Smith, have returned again to stake their territory in the new millennium’s musical landscape, a playing field peppered with dozens of young up-and-comers who cite the Cure as a major influence (e.g. Interpol, the Rapture, Hot Hot Heat, Bright Eyes). The new record is daringly self-titled, doubling as an introduction to new fans brought over by the up-and-comers and as a definitive overall recapitulation of their sound; more importantly, it attempts to redefine the meaning of the band’s name. After all, the Cure have undergone numerous personnel changes in a quarter of a century, and the concept of “The Cure” depends heavily on how each current member has affected its history. Though Cooper, now in his ninth year, is the newest member of the band, this lineup is still considered non-genuine and uninitiated; The Cure makes a valiant attempt to rectify the situation.
Perry Bamonte has been with the band as the all-important second guitarist since their commercial peak in the early ’90s — a few years longer than Cooper. Sadly, and certainly not directly related to either Bamonte or Cooper, the Cure have been ailing ever since. The legendary alt-rockers, known for their unpredictability, have simply been teetering on the edge of blandness. The safe-sounding Wish in 1992 generated a surprise radio hit in the summery “Friday I’m in Love”, but follow-up singles in the U.S. were inexplicably withheld (though none of them would have succeeded anyway) and the album quickly fell out of mass consciousness. Then, at such a critical time, a legal battle with former member Lol Tolhurst took the band out of the fold for nearly four years. Robert Smith’s first attempt to regain some of the Cure’s lost momentum was a deliberately pandering pop record that disappointed even die-hard fans (Wild Mood Swings), followed by a poorly timed singles collection (Galore) that sampled heavily from Wild Mood Swings before allowing fans to acquire a critical distance from it. Still failing to reverse the Cure’s commercial fortune, Smith next orchestrated a blatant attempt to recapture stray fans by returning to the dramatic melancholy that enraptured them in the first place (2000’s Bloodflowers), the success of which depended primarily on its manufactured-for-marketing ties to early dark Cure masterpieces Pornography and Disintegration, records with very little in common beneath the surface. Perhaps throwing in the towel, the Cure fulfilled their longtime record contract with a redundant single-disc, remastered greatest hits package more notable for its omissions than for the fluffy new throwaway tracks it includes. Having relied too long on former glories to propel their legacy forth, the Cure’s sickness seemed terminal.
Roger O’Donnell has certainly already earned his prominent position in the band, having joined up in 1987 to replace the increasingly undependable Tolhurst on keyboards and then acting as a central instrumental presence on the Cure’s masterpiece, Disintegration. He reportedly almost walked out of the recording sessions for The Cure, as his role has been greatly diminished on the new record. This time around, the band is directed but not overwhelmed by modern rock producer Ross Robinson, who appears to have reintroduced Smith to the idea of guitar-oriented rawness, allowing the emotional impact of the songs to fill the space rather than the overcooked production details that have crippled every Cure record since the dawn of the ’90s. Ironically, O’Donnell’s loss is Bamonte’s gain, as the guitar interplay between Bamonte and Smith dominates the record. None of the new material is out of character, as many predicted when Robinson was announced as the producer; thankfully, there are no unruly forays into nü-metal or hip-hop. The introductory “Lost” immediately demonstrates the album’s rougher qualities, as Smith’s quiet nervousness builds gradually into a familiar, despondent wail backed by increasingly edgy guitars. The repetitive structure allows the cacophony to grow and the melody to reveal itself throughout a number of verses, all the while anchored by Cooper’s amplifying beat — but the true star here is Smith, whose voice is mixed in front of the maelstrom instead of lost at the center of it. He sounds convincing for the first time since the Cure’s brief appearance on The Crow soundtrack a decade ago. “Labyrinth” follows the same formula, but infuses the wall of guitar with a psychedelic Arabian flavor, recurring from key Cure moments past. “Before Three” relaxes the pace and alters the mood a bit; its deliberateness is reminiscent of Bloodflowers, only bright instead of dirgeful. In fact, the record is refreshingly light on dirges; only the majestic electronic toing and froing of “Anniversary” could be classified as such, but the bass-heavy song helps round out the album’s epic feel.
Simon Gallup hails from the Cure’s halcyon dirge days; his bass was the dour muscle behind early Cure favorites like Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography. His deep riffing lends the Cure its identifiable depth and heaviness. Although the Cure have been producing such epic sounds since Gallup joined in 1980, the matching epic song lengths weren’t instigated until the popularization of the CD format in the mid-’80s; Smith has gone on record several times about how he wishes there had been a more expansive format for those early dirge records, especially the trance-inducing Faith. In direct opposition to Smith’s usual philosophy, and apparently due to questionable international marketing practices, The Cure has unbelievably had two songs removed from the U.S. release. Like “Anniversary”, both are somewhat distracting from the record’s otherwise direct, guitar-heavy attack, but on the whole they actually help flesh out the sound by representing pivotal aspects of the Cure not seen in some time. (By definition, a self-titled album certainly should include them.) “Truth Goodness and Beauty” soars and exhilarates, showing how the Cure are able to take off into the stratosphere at any time; it bridges the uplifting “Before Three” to the bouncy single “The End of the World”. The elegant “Going Nowhere” is somewhat slighter and less of an omission, but placed at the end of the record, its calmness provides a welcome epilogue to the thunderstorm of the 10-minute “The Promise”, an example of the psychedelically intricate stadium rock that has been Smith’s main focus since Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me.
After all, Robert Smith has always been the nucleus of the Cure: his voice, his guitar, his lyrics, and his songwriting. But as Smith has matured, he’s fallen too far into the art of songcraft, forgetting what made the Cure so special in the first place: the quirky, unconventional songs that seemed so natural and casual. Not surprisingly, then, The Cure is most effective with its less intensive exercises (the scathing anger of centerpiece “Us or Them”, intentionally the heaviest track the Cure have ever recorded, is definitely not one of them). These off-kilter pop songs, like “(I Don’t Know What’s Going) On”, initially seem odd and inaccessible, but develop upon repeated listening, much like classic Cure. “Taking Off” conjures the playful poppiness of The Head on the Door. “Never” has a gritty crunch, not far removed from 1990’s similarly titled “Never Enough”. And the remarkable “alt.end” sounds like a track from Seventeen Seconds that has aged in a wine cellar for 24 years.
The Cure inhabit a world where their main competition is their own past achievement. Not the fresh start the band truly needed, The Cure at least succeeds in validating the current lineup of the band, as it is a compelling reminder of what made the Cure so great for so long. Reaching par is rarely this impressive.