Happy 15th Anniversary to The Cure’s eponymous twelfth studio album The Cure, originally released June 29, 2004.
I still get chills when I think about that warm desert night at Coachella 2004. The Cure were closing out the festival, headlining Sunday night, and although I enjoyed the whole experience, I was really only there for one reason: my favorite band of all time.
The Flaming Lips who played directly before The Cure had experienced technical difficulties (largely due to their unnecessary, giant inflatable ball…please don’t get me started), which delayed their set and caused me tremendous dismay. I’d heard the venue’s curfew was midnight, and was audibly upset at the idea that The Flaming Lips may be infringing on even one second of The Cure’s set time.
By 10:20 p.m., the customary fog had filled the stage and were it not for the billowing curls of smoke and the cosmic shimmer of stars, I would have wagered the world had stopped. Everything felt impossibly still. But, inside my anticipation was ravenous and unrelenting. And then, it happened—that one unmistakable voice bellowed out into infinite night.
“I can’t find myself,” Robert Smith wailed repeatedly, pausing after each utterance of “I,” as if the concept of ego had disassociated from both inner core and self-directed action. Although The Cure frontman stood before tens of thousands, his sense of desolation rang clear, making his stark vocals at once unnerving and eerily intimate.
Those incredible minutes formed my introduction to “Lost,” the opening track of The Cure’s twelfth studio album. The eponymous LP wouldn’t be released for a few more weeks, with Coachella marking the song’s live debut. Given this enticing sneak preview, I rethought my previous concerns about Smith’s unusual choice to work with Ross Robinson, best known for his more aggressive-rock aesthetic, having collaborated with acts like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot.
But, the truth is: the wrong producer can really damage an album—and, sadly, my beloved band fell victim. Despite bearing the name The Cure, the record sounds the least like them. Robinson demanded the band follow an entirely different recording process than they’d followed before. He claims he’s a Cure fan, so why tarnish that which glitters? The English band had long established their signature sound—not to mention an enviable discography rife with commercial and fan favorites. So, it’s unclear why Robinson felt compelled to futz with the creative formula that had inspired so much success, and stranger still that Smith obliged.
In fact, it only took The Cure’s first album, Three Imaginary Boys (1979), for Smith to realize the perils of relinquishing control to another. To this day, he laments the outcome, stating it’s neither the aesthetic nor track listing he’d envisioned. Having learned the hard lesson early on, he led with conviction from that point forward.
At the turn of the millennium, The Cure issued Bloodflowers (2000), a deliberately dark atmospheric album coursing in the vein of revered works Pornography (1982) and Disintegration (1989). With its release and the subsequent Trilogy shows in 2002, Smith felt the band—25 years after their start—had reached its natural, inevitable conclusion.
And, to his credit, it was Robinson who coaxed Smith back into the studio. Ultimately, it seems Smith’s reasons were two-fold: For one, Smith sought an artistic reboot. Secondly, he was swayed by Robinson’s ongoing passion for The Cure and his persistence they make another record. It’s possible, too, that by working with Robinson, Smith was hoping to cultivate a new segment of fans beyond their fiercely loyal base.
In a 2004 Spin interview, Smith commented, “This new [album] is-I thought it was going to be a complete break with the past. I actually wanted to walk into this and do something completely different. But we’ve ended up doing something that I think sounds more like us than anything we’ve ever done before, so it seemed natural to call it The Cure.”
Smith isn’t necessarily the most truthful with journalists, so it’s impossible for me to know whether he believed the album is truly the quintessence of The Cure. But, if the ill-suited production is one of my gripes, the inconsistent track listing across various regions is also upsetting. The U.S. version is missing a couple of the album’s most beautiful songs (“Truth, Goodness and Beauty” and “Going Nowhere”), which is just unforgivably tragic for uninformed audiences, but also compromises the depth of the record overall.
Admittedly, I don’t know whose decision it was to have so much variation in the sequencing among European, Japanese and North American pressings. But, I suspect it was at least partially influenced, or condoned, by Robinson because I feel a wiser producer (e.g., Smith himself) would have maintained the flow and fought to keep the whole of the record intact. Instead, Robinson saved his confrontational tendencies for the recording process itself, revealing his combative nature to the band soon after they checked into London’s Olympic Studios—a legendary place where they were all but sequestered.
Smith recalled to Spin, “On the first day we were in the studio, we set up and started playing a song, and he let us play through it for an hour or so, and then he came out and he just started kicking things over, and he went absolutely mental.”
Robinson had a very particular sound in mind for The Cure’s new album, and dictated that all five band members follow his specific process to achieve it. For one, he wanted live, impassioned collaboration—the kind he’d grown accustomed to by partnering with less-mature, harder-rock acts. He also insisted that Smith share the sentiments behind the songs before they rehearsed them. I believe this unprecedented approach is part of the reason the album lacks the introspective magic inherent in previous Cure efforts. He straight up killed the mystery.
“I thought, fucking hell, this is outrageous that I'm being asked to explain, and then I thought, no, I'm going to go along with this, the whole point of it is that it's supposed to be a different experience,” Smith confided to The Guardian in 2004.
While The Cure’s frontman gave himself up to the questionable directives, others in the band resisted. Both bassist Simon Gallup and keyboardist Roger O’Donnell endured lengthy showdowns with the temperamental producer. And overall, accounts of the group’s two months at Olympic Studios sound unnecessarily brutal, with Robinson packing them into a tight area near the control booth. “We’d say, ‘That’s a good take,’ and he’d come in and go, ‘That’s the worst fucking thing that I’ve ever heard. What are you all thinking about?’” Smith shared during the Spin interview.
That pretty much sums up the egregious wrong about this misstep of a record. Smith allowed Robinson to override his—and the band’s—own judgment, and we’ll never know what might’ve been otherwise.
But, at the end of the day, The Cure is still a Cure album, which means it’s worth hearing—and even relishing. While the rough acoustics diminish the vivid melodies and pristine keyboards typically associated with The Cure’s sound, they do highlight the skilled musicianship of guitarists Smith and Perry Bamonte, who played with the band since Wish (1992). They also underscore Smith’s uniquely captivating voice, with all its raw emotion and howl-and-yowl flourish. For example, the way he holds his notes on “Truth, Goodness and Beauty” makes my heart palpitate every single time.
“Anniversary,” with its mesmerizing layers of sound and hazy-dream-laced lyrics, is another standout. I guess some things are just too sublime for brash technique to ruin.
Lyrically, too, the album is suffused with the easy wordplay that seems to just spill forth from Smith’s pen, evoking synesthetic reveries and triggering seductive memories. “Before Three” is a shining example, reminiscent of The Cure before Robinson’s graceless touch.
Considering the album now, 15 years after its release, I can’t help but still rue for the record that might have manifested. But, I’ve had so many incredible moments with The Cure since then that I mainly just feel gratitude that they didn’t end. And, I’ll also accept that, as the closing lines to “Lost” state, Smith “got lost in someone else…”
But, it’s OK. We all do sometimes, right? It’s the total picture (“and just the way I feel”) that matters.