Years ago, when a friend and I were listening to The Cure, she told me, "It's nice to know that, whatever happens and no matter how screwed up my life gets, Robert Smith will be somewhere out there with the same big hair and smeared lipstick." Indeed, Cure frontman Robert Smith and his unmistakable image have long seemed to be a ubiquitous presence in the world of music, either through the band's continued albums and tours or through the pedestal that The Cure have been placed upon by second-generation new wave acts that pervade college stations today.
During the early days of The Cure, however, fans might have justifiably assumed otherwise. Many audiences who saw the band tour for their nihilistic Pornography album in 1982 and witnessed a stressed and drug-addled Robert Smith believed that the already iconic frontman would follow in the doomed footsteps of Ian Curtis from Joy Division, whose death was still casting a shadow over the post-punk world. The Cure, who were giving into internal and external pressures at the time, did seem to embody Smith's "It doesn't matter if we all die" lyric as a literal aesthetic.
Nearly three decades later, The Cure continue to dress in black, emerge onto foggy stages, and swirl audiences deep into their manic mood-swing textures of music. The new album, 4:13 Dream, is the sound of a now ever-present Robert Smith still frantically raving his hair and lipstick as he tears his fingernails against stone walls of some deep well to keep from slipping deeper into his unique brand of darkness. Of course, The Cure's listeners know the drill by now. Robert Smith may be defeated one day, but he has never surrendered. On the album's third track, The Reasons Why, Smith sings, "I won't try to bring you down about my suicide", but the still-growing legions of goth-attired fans know that this is exactly what he is about to do and that it's exactly what they want him to continue doing.
It's human nature for people to want to hear the bad news first and, since I'm sure that this rings especially true for fans of The Cure, I'll start with the bad news about 4:13 Dream. Like any other "classic rock" act that has thrived and survived multiple decades, The Cure have long ago crossed the line of being recognized for what they have already done instead of for what they are currently doing. Like the latest offerings from The Rolling Stones, U2, or R.E.M., The Cure's 4:13 Dream treads familiar territory, and every song on the album sounds like a slightly inferior remake of an earlier track. The Cure are now a fan's band and, as evidenced by his eagerness to showcase tracks that fully span their career during each three-plus hour night of touring, the biggest fan is Robert Smith himself. For the most part, 4:13 Dream is The Cure sounding like The Cure.
Fortunately, in this case, the bad news also happens to be the good news. The Cure's audience isn't wishing at this point for a Sgt. Pepper's / Achtung Baby reinvention from the band. While The Cure sound like themselves here, the soundscapes of 4:13 Dream showcase The Cure's strengths with a newfound vigor. Some bands, like New Order, Mogwai, or U2, have adopted a musical style that allows them to record the exact same type of song for years and still manage to sound effortlessly innovative. The Cure have never been so fortunate, though, and the often-changing band lineups revolving around Robert Smith and (usually) bassist Simon Gallup have always reached higher into the stars at the risk of falling harder to the ground, so their songs have never exuded an effortless feel. During their best moments, like the 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration, the sheer labor of writing songs has a tangible and gratifying weight that can be likened to walking through an old house and feeling the hardwood oak floors and solid lumber rafters. 4:13 Dream possesses a similar glorious weight and shows that it takes some effort for The Cure to successfully sound like The Cure. Whereas The Cure sacrificed their characteristic textures under nü-metal producer Ross Robinson for their 2004 self-titled album, and resultantly sounded like a 2004 flavor-of-the-month guitar band that just happened to feature Robert Smith at vocals, this album benefits from Robert Smith's renewed enthusiasm with his band. This is now a trim four-piece, where Smith plays with Simon Gallup, drummer Jason Cooper, and guitarist Porl Thompson, whose return to the band is most welcome.
4:13 Dream opens with a masterpiece, Underneath The Stars, a lengthy brooding guitar rush that emerges like a hybrid of Neil Young's Cortez The Killer and The Cure's own Plainsong. The Cure chose Underneath The Stars to open several shows during their 2008 tour, and this studio album version rises into the stratosphere without losing one ounce of the band's live intensity. Underneath The Stars is the album's best moment.
The Cure proceed into a more buoyant feel with the second track, The Only One, which is probably the best pure pop track that the band has unleashed since their 1992 album, Wish. The lyrics are rather daft, as if Robert Smith is trying to squeeze as many innuendos as he can into each verse, but the song highlights one of Smith's talents, an ability to throw his emotions into the open with a vulnerability that most male artists don't dare to match. Smith's beautiful reckless abandon is backed by an irresistible guitar, bass line, and percussion for a song that is impossible to sit still through. The third track, The Reasons Why, maintains the pop sensibility, although The Cure comes dangerously close to cloning New Order with a bass line that sounds unmistakably like Peter Hook's trademark melodies. The fourth track on 4:13 Dream, Freakshow, is the album's weak link and sounds like The Cure coming full-circle to imitate one of their own most blatant imitators, Hot Hot Heat. The album mix of Freakshow works better than the previously-released single version and the song makes more sense in the context of its place on the album than as a stand-alone single, but it still somehow falls short.
The variety of musical landscapes in these first four songs establishes the album as another of The Cure's cacophonic mixed bags and has a similar feel to 1987's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1992's Wish, and 1996's appropriately-titled Wild Mood Swings. The Cure is elegantly wistful and ethereal in Sirensong, only to dive into the sexually-charged guitar shred of The Real Snow White, a song that should drive The Cure's female fanbase into hysterics. Onward to the catchy guitar strumming and razor-sharp percussion of The Hungry Ghost, where Smith addresses society's aimless never-ending consumerism, and to the jarringly frantic Switch, where Robert Smith screams his hurt puppy-dog voice into a vacuum with lyrics like, "I'm sick of being alone with myself, tired of being with anyone else." The Perfect Boy has my favorite lyrics of any track on the album and rings true with a quintessential The Cure theme of maintaining the ideal wish for impossible things against the face of harsh realism. This. Here And Now. With You is another near-flawless pop gem, complete with an amazing guitar sonicscape from Porl Thompson and immense bass lines courtesy of Gallup. Sleep When I'm Dead is a holdover, originally written during The Cure's 1986 The Head On The Door era, and is another previously-released single from this summer which proves superior in its album mix that benefits from a bouncy bass line.
The last two tracks on 4:13 Dream, The Scream and It's Over, are more intense and finish the album with on an abrasive note. There's a priceless moment midway through The Scream where Robert Smith does just that with a non-stop fifteen-second scream, followed by a pause and an immediate sonic awakening that makes me think of Radiohead's Creep guitar-chop after the chorus. It's Over is The Cure pushed into near speed-metal mode, in the vein of Give Me It from 1984's The Top. Only somewhat marred by the muddled mixing and production that unfortunately covers the album like a pall during the first few listens, It's Over blows out with Robert Smith's assertion, "I can't do this anymore…" The song was suitably chosen to close The Cure's main sets this summer, only for the band to re-emerge with multiple encores each night. Somehow, we know that Robert Smith will always be doing this.
4:13 Dream is an imperfect mix, but is also The Cure's gloriously overblown approach that we have now come to know and love. Having recorded over thirty songs during the sessions for this album, the present word around The Cure campfire is that the band will adopt the remaining tracks for an accompanying darker album to be released in six months. Until then, 4:13 Dream is darkness and light enough, which proves to be an endearing combination of floating pop sensibility and overbearing ethereal intensity. So, go forth, creatures of The Cure's night, and listen…