Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[A brief explanation of my Compilation Or Catalog? series: Although I tend to be a completist, owning everything an artist has released, occasionally the only album I own is a compilation. This can often be a stepping-stone to exploring more of their work, but sometimes a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” is the only thing I’ve heard. With this series I ask my readers to let me know if the compilation I have is sufficient or if there are specific albums I should check out. Normally I revisit the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog, but this gives me an opportunity to learn more about some lesser-known & under-explored artists in my collection]
The Cure was one of those bands that never had any impact on me. During my high school & college years they had a cult following in the US, and I was aware of them from working in various record stores, but they weren’t played on any of the radio stations I listened to and I didn’t know anyone who was a fan. By the time they cracked into the mainstream in the late-‘80s (first via college radio and later on the Pop charts), I wasn’t terribly interested in “indie” or “alternative” or “goth” so I had no interest in listening to their music. It’s not that I disliked them in any way, but there were plenty of other artists & genres that kept me entertained. Whenever I would hear them, either on the radio or in a movie, I liked what I heard but never enough (no pun intended) to buy any of their albums. Only one song ever made me think that I needed to check them out in the future: “Close To Me.” From the first time I heard that deep bass line & handclap-assisted rhythm with warm & bubbly synths, I fell in love with it, even though Robert Smith’s strangled lead vocal wasn’t something I normally responded to. In some ways this song bears a rhythmic similarity to A-ha’s huge 1985 hit, “Take On Me,” but it has a more claustrophobic arrangement than that shimmering pop classic. The horn section in the middle, with trumpet solos (both blasting & muted), was a brilliant addition. For years I only owned this song as part of the collection of extended remixes called Mixed Up, but I rarely played it because I didn’t particularly care for those versions.
It took another decade for me to finally get my hands on a compilation of their music. Simply titled Greatest Hits (2001), the track listing for this 18-song CD was chosen by main songwriter/singer/guitarist/keyboardist Robert Smith, and currently it’s the only Cure album that I own (I sold or traded Mixed Up several years ago). I played Greatest Hits a handful of times when it was released and it’s been sitting on the shelf ever since. A little over a week ago I decided to give it a spin, and after numerous listens I realized that I loved most of these songs and needed to find out more about this band. Before asking for your help with that decision, I want to share my thoughts on the highlights of this compilation, of which there are many. “Boys Don’t Cry” is an early melodic gem, with youthful punk-y energy, that’s not far off from the power-pop of that era. It has a great guitar hook and a memorable stop-start rhythm. “A Forest” is dark & ominous but still has a driving beat, and the bass-heavy arrangement & flanged guitar sound reminded me of Echo & The Bunnymen. Until recently I was a novice about that band, but thanks to the feedback I received on my post about their music, I’ve become a much bigger fan (and I’m pleased to be able to make that musical connection here). “Let’s Go To Bed” is a danceable synth-pop tune with an insistent groove & programmed percussion sounds. I love those excellent “doo doo doo” vocals mirroring the music.
“The Lovecats” has a bouncy, skiffle feel that I never would have expected to hear from The Cure when my only knowledge about them was based on promotional photos where they always looked very serious & gloomy. Everything about this song brings a smile to my face: the tack piano, brushed snare drum, half-spoken lead vocals & the “ba-ba-ba” scatted vocals in the chorus. “Inbetween Days” has a bright bass-driven groove with fast acoustic guitar strumming, some tasty percussion & a memorable synth melody. The 50-second instrumental intro is almost like an overture to this mini symphony, and the “Go on, go on…” section is one of many fantastic hooks. “Why Can’t I Be You?” stands out with its big stomping drums and synth-horn fanfare. Smith’s yelped vocals are a bit over-the-top, but they’re never distracting and in some ways they fit in with the huge production.
“Just Like Heaven” was their first US Top 40 hit, and you can hear why. It sounds like the perfect ‘80s soundtrack song, accompanying a driving scene or perhaps a montage of a happy teenage couple. This one is simply heavenly (pun intended), with its steady groove, descending chiming guitar line & lush synth washes. “Lullaby” is a moody ballad with a memorable sparse guitar figure, haunting bass line, slinky percussion and nearly-orchestral synths. Smith’s whispered vocals, which don’t arrive until a minute into the song, create a slightly creepy vibe (aided by the Alice Cooper-esque macabre nature of the lyrics) yet somehow remain soft & inviting. This one is slower and has a different feel from anything else on this CD. “Lovesong” reverts back to a dance beat but has just as much in common with ‘80s rockers like REM or The Smithereens with those chiming guitars. It’s a simple, straightforward love song (the title is not an ironic one, as far as I can tell) with all kinds of great hooks and a nice guitar solo as well. “Never Enough” moves along with programmed drums & a jagged rhythm, and the mix of rock instruments with a rave-inspired dance beat shows a Stone Roses influence. “High” has a lightly lilting 4/4 groove with sparkling percussion & a subtly catchy guitar pattern. It’s not as instantly brilliant as the previous songs I’ve mentioned, but it’s still excellent. “Friday I’m In Love” is a jangly pop masterpiece that could easily be mistaken for a cover of a lost ‘60s nugget. It’s certainly the happiest song on this collection, and I can’t help but wonder if their longtime fans hated it (in the same way REM fans never want to hear “Shiny Happy People” again). I’ve always enjoyed hearing this song, and without any preconceived notions of what The Cure should sound like, I think it’s as good as anything I’ve heard by them.
There are five songs I haven’t mentioned, all of which are listenable but aren’t up to the standards set by the rest of the material I’ve already discussed. Of these, “The Walk” is one of those ‘80s dance club songs, in the same vein as New Order. For that genre it’s quite good, I suppose, but it’s not really my thing. The production of “Wrong Number,” which I would describe as acid or jungle (although I’m not an expert on either of those genres, so I could be way off), reminds me of the sound David Bowie achieved on his Earthling album. One time Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels delivers some excellent guitar work, cementing the connection for me. There are also two “new” songs, neither of which did much for me (“Cut Here” comes across like they’re trying to replicate their early synth-heavy sound, but it’s lacking any major hooks).
Now that you know what I respond to in their music, I’m asking anyone who considers him/herself a Cure fan to let me know if Greatest Hits is all I need to hear, if I need to get my hands on their entire discography, or if it’s somewhere in the middle. If you think it’s the latter, which are the undisputed classic albums that I should get first, and what makes them so essential? Also, I believe most or all of their albums have been reissued as expanded 2-CD sets. Do I need any of them, or would the original single-disc pressings be sufficient? Or perhaps there’s a more comprehensive compilation that might save me some money but also expose me to the best of their music. It’s clear to me from the 18 songs on Greatest Hits that this band covers a lot of musical ground, much of which I really enjoy. I also realize that the songs I’m familiar with are probably their most commercial, and their album tracks may not be as instantly catchy, but that’s fine with me. I know that The Cure has soundtracked the lives of a lot of people, many during their formative years. Although I may never have that kind of connection to them, I’m always seeking out inspiring music…old & new…and hopefully The Cure can be part of that, with your help. I look forward to hearing from you.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 14, 2013: Since I posted this “Compilation Or Catalog?” entry in August, a large number of longtime Cure fans gave me some excellent recommendations regarding their discography. It was clear to me that I needed to check out more of their music beyond the Greatest Hits CD, but it was difficult to know where to start with over a dozen records in their catalog. Fortunately, the consensus was that I needed to hear at least four particular albums: The Head On The Door, Staring At The Sea (a collection of their early singles that most fans view as an essential album), Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration. I’ve already gotten three of these (Kiss Me… is on order and I should have it soon) and after listening to each of them a couple of times I have to say that those recommendations were spot-on. I find that I respond equally to their shorter, pop-oriented songs and their longer, more atmospheric material. At this point I’m not sure I’ll need to get everything they’ve released, but I really love nearly everything I’ve heard so far. If I like Kiss Me… as much as the others I might have to delve more deeply into their discography. Some have suggested Wish as another good one, so maybe that’s what I’ll check out next. The Cure is obviously no longer simply a Compilation artist for me, but only time will tell if I’ll need to hear their full Catalog. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions. I’ve taken them to heart and have thoroughly enjoyed all of my new acquisitions.