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1/1/1980  Sounds (?)
The Cure
'Seventeen Seconds'
(Fiction FIX 004)

****1/2

Really handy for you isn't it, reviewing an album a month after release when it's already up to 20 in the charts? Sorry. Don't blame me though, blame some other fellow who we understand has OD'd on spaghetti (no flowers by request, just sprinkle parmesean on the coffin). So here I am sitting comfortably, staring at a glass of milk to put me on the Robert Smith wavelength.

And it occurs to me that '17 Seconds' is less pop musically than 'Three Imaginary Boys', also more popular commerically, also less favoured by sophisticated critics who might have been exprected to take a shine to its deeper, darker austerity and melancholy. I can't explain these contradictions. I'm just inordinately fond of the Cure's work and find myself liking both albums approx/equally depending on the prevailing winds and occluded fronts. But they are very different.

For instance, it's unfathomable that 'A Forest' should turn out to be their breakthrough single hit after the failure of the compulsive 'Killing An Arab', the Undertones surrogate 'Boys Don't Cry' and the perfect intelligent pop of 'Jumping Someone Else's Train'. Clear than that the Cure are not going to progress according to any rules. With 'Seventeen Seconds' they have courageously emphasised their extremes as a band of blue-grey mood and emotion with no easy thrills to offer.

'A Forest' is a perfectly fair keynote for the album. Not 'catchy', you've surely never heard anyone whistling it as they strolled down the street, but nonetheless transfixing. The tone colours of the album are haunting sensations of frontier, the no-man's land, wilderness. The oppressive shades of feeling tend to come from bass, drums and keyboards. The guitar, more urgent and agitated, naturally enough matches the voice and words of the singer, or rather the 'protagonist' of each story (one of the underlying qualities of the songs is that despite their load of bleakness they are not inert, they plot movement and change).

And Smith portrays with rare intensity a metaphysical sense of isolation and loneliness. Literally speaking that may be represented by standing in a garden all night cut off from the warm security within the house ('At Night'). But the Cure continually work in image and metaphor so the ripples of meaning and awareness spread into infinity on the stone-in-a-calm-pond principle. Now, drawing to a close, I find it's been relatively easy to express the pleasing pristine clarity of this record but I haven't got across much about the stirring excitement of it. It's there though, the mysterious aspect anyone who's liked 'A Forest' must have felt, a bubbling tension beneath the surface - not to be confused, I reckon, with the one false trail they lay on 'Seventeen Seconds'. The three brief instrumental tracks are what people call hazily 'atmospheric' when they can't think of anything else to say. To me they are rather too much like occult-horror-movie-Gothic, Hammer when they should be Hitchcock. I can't see Robert Smith as Dracula. This is another indication of what an unusual band they are: they seem to need the precise forms and sense imposed by words to hold their aesthetics together.

Hit!

- Phil Sutcliffe

 

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