For all his cryptic hints over the years, Robert Smith is ready to explain the inevitable end of his three-decade reign as icon of romantic despair in sensible, mature, sober language. With an near-total lack of whimsy, no imaginary boys, no hanging gardens, no screaming babies, no cockatoos, no spidermen, or no mint cars, Bloodflowers returns Smith to tangible despair. Rather than howling about it over squalling death guitars while screaming for opiates as he did on Pornography (now older than most third-gen goths who will answer "Standing On the Beach" when asked on which album "The Hanging Garden" appears on), Smith merely embraces his bleak fate. "I realize we only get to stay so long/Always have to go back to real lives where we belong," he shrugs on "Out of This World," the album's opener. The song, for all its lyrical freshness, ironically and unwisely conjures melodic memories and in turn, the antithetical sentiment of the gorgeous decade-old whine "Pictures of You." Bloodflowers is the Cure's most disturbing record since Pornography simply because hearing Smith sound so nakedly exhausted by the delicious grief that used to inspire him is horribly strange.
This isn't to say that Smith has gone all 'angry young man turns spiritual' on us a la more facile artists like Billy Joel, but his older fans will most certainly feel abandoned. This especially hits home once they realize that Bloodflowers isn't so much a return to form (the publicity party line is that it's the third installment of a trilogy that began with Pornography, peaked commercially with Disintegration, and ends here), but a deconstruction, and eventual dismissal of the pop-goth genre that Smith virtually invented. Once fans' black, black hearts mend (we recommend regressing with a spin or two of Head on the Door to re-cultivate fondness) they may realize that Robert Smith is actually saving himself here. How thankless would it be for him to take the stage at 50 with the car crash make-up and industrial strength fixative holding whatever strands of black hair he's got left on his head in an '80s fright wig time warp? Remember when we wanted him to die young and perfect like we want all of our heroes to die? Well, he didn't. And he won't (it's too late for him to "go young," as he muses in "Where The Birds Always Sing"). Shit, there's even a song called "39" (Smith, who recorded the disc last year in London, is now past 40).
Bloodflowers smartly pulls up the weeds and cleans a bed for mid-life flowers akin to Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man or Dylan's Time Out of Mind, though it doesn't reach the creative heights of those albums. Smith already hints at such triumphs on the stark, but funny, valentine "There Is No If," which contains, possibly, his most human lyrics: "Remember the first time I told you I love you/It was raining hard and you never hear/You sneezed and I had to say it over.
This is not to say that Bloodflowers is all function and no quality form. It's simply not quite as easy to find a standout here. On all of the band's '90s albums, although arguably sub-par against their early efforts, Smith included obvious gems-Wish's "End" or "Letter to Elise," and Wild Mood Swings's "Strange Attraction." After the first few listens Bloodflowers has nothing musically that leaps out and hugs the listener. The songs begin with a simple, acoustic rhythm followed by some meandering leads that reveal themselves as actual hooks with each new listen. In this way, ironically, Bloodflowers is a fan record, if not a fan's immediate gift. It's for those with faith. "Everything I ever did, I used to feed the fire," Smith sings, hinting at the notion of advancing age. Sure, it doesn't burn as brightly as youthful lust and romantic despair, but for those who still care it will keep them warm. And when "there's nothing left to burn," as he laments, it is, for once a stark, honest confession, real enough to portend to something special (if not quite as wonderfully pretty) rising. Yesterday he got so old it made him want to cry. Boys, of course, don't, but old men can, and Smith seems to be accepting that with a grace never before expressed on a Cure record.