1/18/2000 Ironminds (Internet)
Back With Bloodflowers
When Robert Smith turned 40 last April, it was a birthday that gave me pause. The venerable Mick Jagger and David Bowie are still prancing about in fine condition and giving hope to the generation directly above mine. Meanwhile, Gen-Xers such as myself are stuck with the visage of the forever bushy-haired, raccoon-eyed Smith as our role model.
Formerly the cool, spiky, sneaker-clad template for millions of disenfranchised high-school students, Bobís steadily progressed into a middle-aged Goth who looks the product of too much booze and a rotten diet.
The boys I shared my Aussie Sprunch Spray with in 10th grade went to college and got haircuts. Bono and Martin Gore ditched the eyeliner about the same time Perry Farrell began wearing it. Bauhaus reunited in Ď98 with a healthy, fit-looking Peter Murphy up front. Meanwhile, in the year 2000, my former teen idol is still bumbling about with his ratty hair (he cut it once, remember?), makeup and baggy clothes. What this says about my generation Iím not sure - perhaps that weíre a bunch of lazy slobs.
Still, thereís something tremendously endearing about the lipstick-smeared Smith, who is a rare and curious commodity. Heís both a clichť and a bona fide musical talent a combination that only exists in the highest echelon of rockstardom. Heís the originator of the entire Goth-lite franchise, a somewhat unfair credential given the vast catalog of solid work the Cure has produced over two decades.
Smithís been able to bounce between an amazing range of styles with aplomb economical pop, subversive gloominess, new-wave electronica and back to a lusher but still symmetrical pop again. The Cureís high moments are many and diverse: the spare, intelligent debut album; Simon Gallupís unforgettable bass line in "A Forest"; the teeth-gritting "Primary"; the weird, arrythmic Pornography; the sweet, flickering "Caterpillar Girl"; the repetitive electronic drone of "The Walk"; the saxophone bridge in "A Night Like This"; the handclaps in "Close To Me." And thatís just the first half of the bandís career. Two best-of collections, Standing On A Beach and Galore, have been compiled to document the Cureís 20-plus years.
There are two camps of Cure fans, those who prefer the Standing On A Beach-era older Cure, which ended with the wonderful, Gallup-powered Head On The Door album, and those who primarily like the bandís Galore material, which comprises most of the Cureís big radio hits ("Just Like Heaven," "Lovesong," "Friday Iím In Love," et al.). The only thing that is consistent between these two eras is the bandís constantly changing lineup; the year 2000 finds only two original members still hanging around (Smith and bassist Gallup - who, technically, isnít even an original member; he joined on sophomore album Seventeen Seconds). The newest members were added sometime around the release of the bandís last album (the 1996 Wild Mood Swings); old-school fans such as myself canít even bring themselves to acknowledge these neophytes as part of the Cure.
Nor have older fans been able to reconcile themselves to the new Cureís sound, which has been rapidly losing steam for some time. Much like the career of Prince, Smith and Co. established a precedent with a decade of concrete work before branching out into more experimental territory. After the album Disintegration, which spawned four radio singles and documented the peak of the Cureís now-signature prominent bass lines, Smith began writing in a progressively shapeless style that didnít hold up to the previous catalog. Also similar to Prince, the band would occasionally throw out brilliant nuggets, the most recent being the provocative "Wrong Number" and a dizzy, wonderful cover of Depeche Modeís "World In My Eyes," which teased longtime fans who otherwise were losing most of their interest.
The faithful, however, always have remained, as evidenced by the general buzz surrounding the Cure 2000ís latest project, Bloodflowers. Smith has noted that this album will most likely be the bandís last, and again, like Prince rumors floated that the music is reminiscent of an older, Goth-ier Cure. The expected skepticism, mostly among those who ever navigated their high-school parking lot in a car with a Carnage Visors bumper sticker, accompanied this.
Given the Cureís consistent state of paradox, it should come as no surprise that both the faithful and the skeptics are right in this case. Bloodflowers isnít a return to anything Smith has ever written in his life. What it does represent is, finally, a cohesive notch for the 40-year-old singer, and therefore, itís the best thing heís done in a very long time. Smithís plaintive wail, like his mop-top appearance, has begun lately to feel markedly dated. Like it or not, heís a character actor, and he unwittingly carries immense amounts of his public image into everything he touches. Although this occasionally works - it did add a magnificent, witty twist to the Depeche Mode cover, for example - the tremendous weight of Smithís persona has been dragging down most of his recent original material.
On Bloodflowers, everything has somehow been toned down a bit. Gone is the metallic thud of Gallupís distinctive electric bass. Itís replaced by far more subtle acoustic guitar as the standout instrument. The last time Smith used six-string strumming this effectively, it was in the frenetic, galloping "In Between Days." But, as stated before, Smith isnít returning to anything - at least not overtly. Bloodflowersí opener, "Out Of This World," wraps gently around itself to creates perhaps the most subtle effect the band has ever achieved. In a terrific surprise, though, the song ends with a fade-out of what (I swear!) is the exact same note that ends the Ď80s anthem "A Night Like This."
Another touch that subtly hearkens older Cure material is the inclusion of piano, which Smith has used with restraint in his songwriting over the years. Whenever he used it in the past, though, it was the equivalent of overpowering icing on the cake: reference "Lovecats" and "Just Like Heaven." Here, he lets it meander and play. Again, it doesnít sound like anything heís written before, but itís just enough to recollect certain parts of the Cureís past. Strings enter the picture, too, but they arenít the spastic stutter of "Caterpillar Girl," the needle-sharp line throughout "Catch," nor the marked cornerstone that held up Disintegration. Like watercolors instead of primary paint, all the instrumentation on Bloodflowers flows together in a gentle blend.
This instrumental shift, although representative of a great change, isnít the most marked difference of Cure 2000, however. Smith, while remaining blessedly rooted in his dated appearance, has finally figured out a way to dial his own presence down. Perhaps the reason why the last couple of Cure albums proved disappointing lay in Smithís inevitable aging: the combination of experimental songwriting with an unmistakable vocal stamp wasnít aging well along with him.
But on Bloodflowers, Smith is finally right in sync with his legendary voice. Maybe Someday, which is set as the first single to hit radio in the coming weeks, is a simply beautiful song, redolent with everything that made the Cure attractive to fans years ago - in a new, grown-up manner. This is the "Charlotte Sometimes" for adults, the first Cure that a thirtysomething former fan can listen to and love without feeling nostalgic.
Bloodflowers isnít without its flaws. Most of the songs are well over five minutes, including an 11-minute exercise, Watching Me Fall, which seems to go on forever. But on the whole, the record holds up in a mature, well-structured way.
Itís a great pleasure for those who have always held Robert Smith up as an icon of sorts to listen to this album. Alternative musicís most reluctant godfather has finally eased into a comfortable place, and Iím feeling a bit of odd pride in him and even in my disenfranchised little generation who worshipped him. Especially since those last couple of albums by Bowie and the Stones really did suck.