Cure Tour 2016 by a Malcontent
Why a live re-run of Disintegration leaves me cold
July 31st 2016
Cureheads, look at it this way: I’m an advocate of the Cure, I have only their best interests at heart, I just don’t share your euphoria. If we praise them when they play it safe then what will they be remembered for?
Take the setlist for the July 2016 Melbourne show, a 34-song, four-encore marathon in what must surely be the stronghold for diehard Cure fans in Australia, a place where you’d expect the band to stray at least a little from their greatest hits. And stray they did – a little. Of 34 songs, 11 were post-Disintegration (after which, as everyone over 40 seems to agree, the rot set in). Of the remaining 23: eight from Disintegration, twelve greatest hits, and three pre-Disintegration album tracks: “One Hundred Years”, “Shake Dog Shake” and (the only real surprise of the night) “Bananafishbones”.
Now far be it from me to judge people for their response to that setlist; after watching the first 8-10 songs of a similar list in a rubbish-strewn field in Byron Shire (not the best context, I’ll admit – the sound, for one thing, was terrible) I feel pretty certain it would have bored me, but in no way am I suggesting that’s the only or correct response to it. But that setlist, and the response of my friends and other old school fans to it, and the general tone of criticism of the Cure in the past ten years or more (maybe since Robert Smith saved the world on South Park) – all of that is like a wall with me on one side and, apparently, every other Cure fan on the other. And the name of that wall is Disintegration.
Don’t get me wrong, Disintegration was as big an event in my teens as it was in yours: it was thrilling, to see my favourite functioning band all over MTV. As a beginner guitarist, I embraced Disintegration as my tutor; every slow-played note, every simple chord-change was comprehensible. Also, like 1982’s Pornography, it was consistent, in tone if not in emotional content (“Lullaby” and “Lovesong” broke the mood), but unlike Pornography it wasn’t in the least abrasive. My parents liked it; the whole family could listen.
At the time – and despite my first suspicious reaction to “Pictures of You” – I still considered the Cure the best band in the realm. At the time, I guess, there still seemed something to fight for: in outer-suburban-cum-rural South Australia, where AC/DC and Led Zep were de rigueur, a synth-heavy album of 6-10 minute softly-sung dirges of melancholic regret seemed something worth getting behind. If the sound was monotonous, there was always the chance the band would tour, and play all those early-eighties classics I’d been blissing out to late nights alone in my bedroom since a couple of years back. Well, the Wish Tour (1992) changed all that; that sterile, sit-down, greatest hits stadium gig snapped me right out of it. To have gazed into the abyss – or so Robert Smith would have us believe – and then come back with “High”, with “Friday I’m in Love”! Not that I’m complaining: it had to dawn on me eventually that, for all the consummate subdued histrionics of its delivery, the death-haunted schtick of Disintegration was just that: a schtick.
“How the end always is”? The end of what? 25 years later, has anything ended for Robert Smith? It just seems to keep going and going. “Every time I make an album I have to believe it’s our last,” he’d say. Well I’m sorry but while for a few years in his twenties that meditation might have borne fruit, it seems ingenuous to me, and negative. Disintegration is like a trunk of old letters threatening a break-up that never occurs. Had the break-up occurred (of the band, of the marriage, of whatever needed breaking), things might be different. Where’s the solo album we kept hearing about? Why is Robert Smith still in make-up and big hair when he swore he’d be done with both by 40? Why is every goddamn song always played exactly to specifications? Where’s the life? And if the Cure are such iconoclasts then why do they trundle out the greatest hits, time after time, on stadium stage after stadium stage? Or at least, the greatest hits plus Disintegration.
Disintegration. It’s a seductive sound, and a bold one, since it takes Robert’s stated aesthetic (“Why play three notes when you can play one?”) to extremes. Nothing wrong with that: “All Cats Are Grey” (from Faith, 1981) has few notes in it, but they’re (subtly) surprising; the chords and riffs in Disintegration are anything but. It’s a beautifully produced album, crystal clear and spacious, but to my mind a song like “Sinking” (The Head on the Door, 1985, also produced by David M. Allen with Robert Smith) is far more textured. The difference is in the playing: by ’85, the Cure boasted a crack rhythm section of drummer Boris Williams and bassist Simon Gallup (who, since Seventeen Seconds, had been the band’s secret weapon). Now sure, these guys played on Disintegration too, but by that time, it seems, Robert had turned despot; there’s barely a drumfill or bassline of note on the entire album. In a song like “Push”, by contrast, every player occupies an equal portion. It’s a living interpretation. Disintegration is dead on the vine.
Not that I’d bother commenting if it weren’t for the general air of worshipfulness. But, for budding young Cureheads, in the interests of maintaining perspective, I offer the following playlist of album tracks, pre-Disintegration. I recommend them to anyone embarking on a Disintegration obsession, to deepen and broaden the experience. Good luck. I’ll see you on the other side.
- In Your House
- At Night
- Another Journey By Train
- Charlotte Sometimes
- All Cats Are Grey
- The Drowning Man
- One Hundred Years
- A Short-Term Effect