The Cure - 4:13 Dream Review

It’s tough to listen to a new record from musical institutions far removed from their prime. The Rolling Stones may still tour, but no one shows up at one of their shows hoping to hear anything new from the last twenty-five years. After decades of downtime, recent albums from revamped heavyweights such as the Who and the Stooges landed with more whimper than bang. As for the Cure, few bands are more synonymous with the decade of the 1980s as they are. They released at least two classics and another three or four that approach that distinction. But since the rock game changed in 1991, they’ve struggled to find a new audience with original material. They haven’t exactly floundered, but the number of people who claim that a post-Disintegration Cure album is their favorite is roughly the same as those who champion The Godfather Part III as the best in the trilogy.

A generous portion of the problem is human memory. It’s virtually impossible to discuss a new record by the Cure (or any other aging act) without reliving the past. And not only do their 80s records have the distinction of being more accomplished and successful than anything since, but there’s the added burden of nostalgia. We fell in love with the Cure because of their old releases; nothing tastes quite right when you so easily recall that longing ecstasy. Robert Smith has earned his legacy, but does a slew of minor efforts tarnish it?

Recent Cure albums are mostly just memorable in their mediocrity. Bloodflowers was an obvious attempt to return to an old sound, but the performance was uninspired. Their self-titled 2004 record was marred by a reliance on loud and fuzzy guitars slashing and burning the senses; even if it was a completely different band, it wasn’t any good. The two best songs the Cure have recorded since 1989 are a single-only release (“Never Enough”) and a song for The Crow soundtrack (“Burn”). Not much on their regular albums have impressed me much; usually listenable, rarely laudatory.

But as 4:13 Dream unfolds, it makes a promise that the band ultimately couldn’t possibly fulfill. “Underneath the Stars” opens wide, a sprawling rock song that rumbles along with bottom-heavy guitars and a Sabbath-inspired bassline. It’s accompanied by rainfall chimes that twinkle like fairy dust, summoning the image of diamond sparkles rippling across a black-cloaked communion. Smith sings, “Whisper in my ear, a wish/We could drift away so far/Your voice inside my head, a kiss/It's infinite and ours alone tonight.” They’re underneath the stars, but those stars are showering down. The warping vocal tricks only heighten the sense of cosmic tragedy. The Cure is thrillingly alive again for the first time in years. Producer Keith Uddin can earn some of the praise, turning a strong goth rock number into something bordering on an unearthly epic that sounds almost inhuman yet infinitely embraceable.

To my consternation (but not to my surprise), the thrill doesn’t last forever. Dream is hardly vintage Cure, and terribly uneven, but has its share of minor highlights. “Only One” finds the Cure picking up right off of the longing but punchy pop of “Just Like Heaven”; it won’t be the only time they revisit moments from Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. The lamenting “Perfect Boy” and “This. Here and Now. With You” evoke their tenderly impassioned goth pop tendencies; even without the familiarity of finer days, they are prime cuts. And the driving, emotionally-charged climax of “Reasons Why” is one of the times when Smith lets his hair down (tangled and teased as it might be) and successfully rocks the joint.

But too much of Dream recalls the punishing and off-putting hard rock aural violence of The Cure. “Real Snow White” isn’t shabby, but the Cure has never really been comfortable with crunchy guitars. They seem to turn up the volume and distortion to mask the fact that the melody is unremarkable in almost every way. Ditto for “Hungry Ghost,” which isn’t a bad song at all, but one that would have benefited from cleaning up the noise. The steel string-scrape effects are cleanly misshapen and feel entirely superfluous. “Scream” is all howling anger, a desperate search for catharsis, but it’s unfocused and ultimately never gets off the ground. “Scream and you scream/How we ended here/How we got from then to now/Never really followed how/We ended here” offers little insight and even less liberation. One of the rare times it works is on “Switch,” which is aided by subtle keyboard touches and a head-nodding velocity—even still, the squealing guitar flourish that opens the track is excessive.

A pair of two-and-a-half minute numbers find the band experimenting, but the track lengths alone hint that the adventures will feel clipped and incomplete. “Freak Show” is frenetic and herky-jerky; they’re aiming to make the music stutter, but since it amasses its energy so ineffectually, the more appropriate descriptor is “sputter.” And “Sirensong” flits by like a half-formed idea, ending so quick and abrupt, it’s a wonder they bothered starting it at all. Individually, they might have just seemed like shrug-worthy goofs easily ignored for their brevity and brashness; back-to-back, they bring the early momentum to a screeching halt.

“It’s Over” ends things on an unexpected high note. Why unexpected? Because it’s a locomotive-thunderbolt rock track—a return to some of the more hyperactive moments of Kiss Me. It chugs right along on a blanket of day-glow distortion, with the guitars fragging everything in sight, drumsticks punching holes in all they strike and Smith vamping no-brood, all-glam. A fun rawk track, yes, and also something totally out of the blue for the Cure to ever attempt. If this signals a new direction for the band, I don’t know whether to be eager or terrified.

Smith reportedly had a frustrating time in the studio recording The Cure (nothing new) but he seems happy to have stripped away the syrup and gotten back to economical basics for 4:13 Dream. But the Cure’s peak years were ones in which elegance, atmospherics and solemn beauty were their calling card. They used to up the ante of Cocteau Twins by taking that gorgeous pink noise and crafting memorable pop hooks to go along with them and plugging them full of longing and heartbreak—stuff that impressionable teens sick of Fall Out Boy can cling onto. But Smith and company go heavy in the wrong places, forcing dissension and aggression both, and they end up spinning their wheels. Even without the back catalog to look to, this isn’t a great album, but knowing what the Cure is capable of makes it even more disappointing. The only way to truly enjoy 4:13 Dream is to cherry-pick your favorite moments and pretend the rest was churned out by an imitator.

"4:13 Dream" is on sale October 28, 2008 from Geffen.

Nov
02
2008
Matt Medlock

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