No more Mad Bob?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Robert Smith has wormed himself into an enviable but precarious position over the past 18 months. We don’t know what to expect anymore. But, then again, we know to expect nothing. He’s slipped the straitjacket of brooding depression that seemed to shape “Faith”, cleaved through the claustrophobia that stifled “Pornography”, checked himself out of the funny farm where he tampered with his nightmares and turned out “The Top”, and now roams among us, a harmless, often hilarious, eccentric.
He’s changed, or our attitude towards him has changed – he’s accepted now for his idiosyncrasies, labeled and loved and, even if he’s managed to shed all his previous incarnations, I can’t help wondering if the magnificent liberty that fashioned “The Head On The Door” won’t cement into another image, comfortably digested and, hence, easily dismissed.
Certainly “The Head” is as certifiable as “The Top” in the (non)sense that it’s as willfully enigmatic as ever. The only difference is it’s determinedly languorous, nowhere near as tortured or tense as its predecessor and, for all its deliberate variety and characteristic quirks, it maintains a disturbingly even strain.
Sometimes I think Smith could write songs like these in his sleep, not just about it. They’re exercises in the manipulation of misery – Smith apparently stopped soul-searching and hair-tearing some time ago and now contents himself matching and juxtaposing emotions in appropriate atmospheres just to see how perverse a pop song can be and still remain popular. It’s not so much a craft as a quest, more Don Quixote than Nik Kershaw could ever imagine.
So “The Head” is a collection of pop songs, it’s as simple (?) as that. Bursting with potential hits, it staggers under its influences, rescued from dilettantism solely by Smith’s steady presence. Some stuff, like “The Baby Screams” – a classic Cure concoction of mixed metaphors and creeping guitar – will satisfy the Faithful. Others, like “Close To Me” – a squirming, sobbing, pleading disco thing complete with handclaps – will seduce just about any Tom, Dick, or Vanessa.
“The Head” makes a mockery not only of the accepted parameters of what the radio will play and the public accept (it’s miraculous that “Inbetween Days” is on “Top Of The Pops”) but also of what The Cure are supposed to be about. Absurdly straight, there’s nothing obscure or sinister about “A Night Like This” – it ascends a perfectly tangible spiral, deals with love and despair in desperate balance, toys with a joyously incongruous singalong and accommodates a sax break more at home with Hall & Oates.
It’s a neat ragbag of the arbitrary – each song a separate piece from a different jigsaw. Some shapes bear the imprint of exotic scenes – “Kyoto Song” sounds Japanese while “The Blood” stamps through its paces to flamenco guitar. Others suggest there are more strident, less fickle things ahead. “Push”, for example, is stronger, less whimsical than anything that revolved and grew giddy on “The Top”, and “Sinking” is more majestic, more honest perhaps, than anything Smith’s done since “All Cats Are Grey”.
Dark and poised on a precipitous drumbeat, it glides into shape swathed in keyboards embroidered by hesitant snicks of guitar until Smith’s gorgeous whine is echoed into epic ricocheted whispers.
As a compilation of possibilities, “The Head On The Door” is perfection of sorts – a romp more than a rage through the closet, trying things on, not tearing them up. This Cure is boisterous but relaxed and reliably unreliable. I’m used to it now and I use it with pleasure.
So, no more Mad Bob. Next time, something else. Again.
© Steve Sutherland & Melody Maker