Let’s face it: In areas of the world where the weather is turning warmer, it’s just not true Spring without that inaugural trip to the beach. But amid an increasingly threatening pandemic, many of us are shuttered inside our houses instead of sheltering under a large umbrella with the sonorous ocean waves as our sacred soundtrack.
But while nothing beats the real thing, in lieu of an actual trip to the ocean, we can vicariously journey there via our curated soundtrack of Cure songs that summon the sea. After all, two Cure videos (“Close to Me” and “Just Like Heaven”) take place at Beachy Head (either physically or virtually), and the singles compilation LP Standing on a Beach (also variously known as Staring at the Sea) is what helped catapult the Cure into the mainstream back in 1986.
Now, mind you, vocalist and lyricist Robert Smith is English, and lives in England. Therefore, often his words have a decidedly, let’s say, moody take on the sea. While many people prefer the stock idea of the beach as a place where you bronze your body and dip into the ocean when the sun’s rays prove too searing, Smith’s lyrical excursions often delve into the mercurial side of the sea. After all, the ocean is a body of water that defies domestication.
But of course, in these times of turmoil and outright trauma, what better match does the tempestuous human soul have than the sea? Somehow, we need the sea in all its paradoxical primeval elements to assuage our anguish — or at least validate it. And no lyricist is better than Robert Smith in twinning the wrath (or sadness) of the sea with similar human emotions — or in evoking eternity with idyllic oceanic allusions. For while Robert Smith might be an acute practitioner of existentialist dread, he’s also a hopeless romantic.
We will start with the most recent (and least somber) song and work backward.
“Underneath the Stars”
“Underneath the Stars” is the stunning opener on The Cure’s 2008 (and most recent) album, 4:13 Dream. Here, the ocean’s ebbs and flows provide a glorious sonic backdrop while two lovers “float” under a sharply starry night sky. The song’s sublime shoegaze sounds conjure the transcendence of star-gazing and infinity-musing with a romantic partner — “together as now, forever as one” — while also eliciting the ancient inseparability of the sky and sea, with “13 billion years” of stars whirling “as the waves break.”
For both fans and detractors of 1996’s Wild Mood Swings, “Jupiter Crash” is a standout tune for its lush balladry and clever poetry. Again, we find lyrics fusing the cosmic with the terrestrial, as the narrator’s love interest “follows me down to the sound of the sea / slips to the sand and stares up at me.”
We learn that the narrator acts as a guide for a comet “show”, wherein a falling star is set to crash into Jupiter. The problem is, the show was too abrupt and not very interesting, so “she left to the sound of the sea / she just drifted away from me / so much for gravity.” Love waxes and wanes like the ocean and is often as capricious as comets.
“Edge of the Deep Green Sea”
The epic “Edge of the Deep Green Sea” on 1992’s critically acclaimed Wish is a soaring song, again about love and loss that takes place seaside. Clocking in at 7:42, it’s a concert crowd-pleaser with its plea early in the song to “put your hands in the sky”, eliciting just such a gesture from giddy spectators. As Robert Smith’s tear-sodden vocals wail that “every time we do this / I fall for her / wave after wave after wave / it’s all for her”, howling guitars weave in and out of this sumptuous scene of romance on the rocks. The two lovers “watch the sun come up from the edge of the deep green sea / and she listens like her head’s on fire / and she wants to believe in me”.
But the problem is, there is a backlog of pain in the relationship: “too many tears…/ too many years I’ve cried for you”. As the song ascends to a beatifically bleak crescendo, with piano plinks, and labyrinthian guitar phrasing courtesy of virtuoso Pearl (formerly Porl) Thompson, Smith laments, “wake up in the rain / head in pain / hung in shame…/ same old game / love in vain.” A briny anthem to ruined romance if there ever was one.
“Just Like Heaven”
“Just Like Heaven”, from 1987’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, is the Cure’s most popular song. It’s not the band’s highest-charting song in the US — that honor goes to “Lovesong” — but it’s the one most beloved by casual fans, and even hardcore fans who often favor the Cure’s earlier, darker catalog. (Anyone needing proof only needs to compare which live Cure song on YouTube truly brings the house down). Indeed, “Just Like Heaven” has earned its place as the pop song that encapsulates the sensual surrealism of love, in all its compelling unreality.
“Just Like Heaven” is rousing and wistful both, a polarity that has always been part of the Cure’s dichotomous appeal. The lively guitar licks contrast with a mournful piano melody, as Smith’s otherworldly warble conjures a beloved who is “strange as angels / dancing in the deepest oceans / twisting in the water…just like in a dream”. But the ethereality proves to be just that, as “daylight licked me into shape / I must have been asleep for days…/ I opened up my eye s/ and found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea / that stole the only girl I loved / and drowned her deep inside of me”. The sea’s secret is that certain doom lurks within its deepest dreams.
“Just One Kiss”
In 1982, The Cure needed a respite from its Pornography album sessions (which produced The Cure’s most harrowing album to date), so the band made an EP called Japanese Whispers, essentially a collection of singles, ranging from the silly, swingy “Lovecats” to more darkly ruminative tunes like “Just One Kiss” (which also appears on the Join the Dots collection of b-sides and rarities).
The musically spectral “Just One Kiss” is, lyrically, a series of eerie questions within an hallucinatory scene: “Remember the time that the islands sank? / But nobody opened their eyes”. The imaginary milieu is a stark void, and only accrues more desolation as it spirals toward a fatalistic end: “Remember the time that the sky went black? / we waited alone on the sands / remember the taste of the raging sea? / but nobody held out their hands…./ somebody died for just one kiss”. The sea can erase all trace of memory or circumstance; we are powerless against its enveloping embrace.
“A Strange Day”
And now we come to the most unsettling yet supernaturally gorgeous sea-song in the Cure’s catalogue. From the aforementioned Pornography, “A Strange Day” offers a more meditative mysticism compared to the utter nihilism of the album’s previous songs. In the tune, the narrator supplicates, “Give me your eyes / that I might see the blind man kissing my hands…” setting a psychedelic context. Dourly but dreamily, “the sand and the sea grow / I close my eyes / move slowly through drowning waves”.
But then the narrator seems to surrender all sense of self to the natural elements: “And I laugh as I drift in the wind / blind dancing on a beach of stone / cherish the faces as they wait for the end / sudden hush across the water”. His head falls back, the walls come crashing down, the sky explodes, but he holds “for one moment an impression of sound / then everything is gone forever / a strange day”. The sea and its stony shores provide a preternatural setting for the disintegration of all that is known and unknown.
There are other notable Cure songs with ocean references, such as “Bloodflowers”, “Before Three”, “Hot Hot Hot”, and the ever-controversial “Killing an Arab”. But the six tunes featured here best capture the temperamental fluctuations of the sea and human emotions. They showcase how we can always retreat to the sea in our dreams, if no other way currently exists.