For nearly 30 years, Robert Smith of the British rock band the Cure has been identified with his spidery hairdo, his heavy eyeliner and lipstick, and his yelp. That stifled sob gives Mr. Smith’s lyrics an enviable urgency, whether as a sigh of ecstasy or an anguished lament. Throughout the 80’s the Cure built a cult following with bouncy MTV hits like ”Let’s Go to Bed” and the prom-night smash ”Just Like Heaven” as well as dark albums of goth drone like ”Pornography” and ”Disintegration.”
But despite Mr. Smith’s punchy guitar patterns, pleading melodies and melancholy grandeur, he was considered a dreamy lightweight compared to serious-minded contemporaries like Michael Stipe of R.E.M and Bono of U2. And though Mr. Smith remained a black-clad pied piper of adolescent depressives around the world, no one had him figured as a major rock influence. But now, Mr. Smith’s yelp is everywhere.
Neo-80’s bands like New York’s Interpol and the Rapture (whose Luke Jenner is the most pronounced yelper of the lot) write darkly reflective songs that hark back to the Cure’s early albums, weaving sharp guitar or keyboards over anxious, danceable beats. But the emo-folk singer Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, owes a debt as well — his own yelp approximates Mr. Smith’s public displays of heartache. And even bands that don’t yelp at all, from the arty hard-rockers the Deftones to the pop-punkers Blink-182 (who featured Mr. Smith on its last record), credit Mr. Smith for giving them license to express feelings of vulnerability that might be frowned upon in their own genres.
The Cure will releases its impressive, self-titled new album (I Am/Geffen) on Tuesday. The video for the first single, ”The End of the World,” is playing on MTV. And later this summer, the band will headline its own Curiosa tour, with help from its younger progeny the Rapture, Interpol, Cursive, Mogwai and Thursday. The question arises: how did Robert Smith, this sobbing wraith, become the godfather of woe?
In the 80’s, the Cure wooed arty fans who wore a vaguely defined sadness as a badge of significance. While his mopey British rival Morrissey attracted a snide intellectual set with complaints about class and sexual politics in a conservative society, Mr. Smith offered self-pitying lyrics like these from ”Homesick”: ”Oh it was sweet, it was wild, and oh how I trembled stuck in honey/ honey, cling to me so just one more, just one more go inspire in me the desire in me to never go home.” With his yelp lending petulance to the entreaty of ”In Between Days” or futility to the crumpled gratitude of ”Lovesong,” Mr. Smith’s over-the-top-displays of vulnerability turned navel-gazing self-pity into a kind of liberation. And lonely brooders found community within the band’s growing cult. Detractors criticized Mr. Smith’s preoccupation with duplicitous fairies and hanging gardens as absurd, a kind of campy catharsis, but the young fans gladly identified with his ”me’s” and ”you’s.”
This epic self-involvement is something the emo rockers have inherited. In the sense that emo ”privileges private drama,” as Andy Greenwald writes in his recent book, ”Nothing Feels Good,” Mr. Smith is a forefather of the genre. On Web sites where teenage emo fans congregate, like livejournal.com (and the decidedly more goth deadjournal.com), the Cure is often listed in the company of newer bands like Thursday and Bright Eyes.
What these bands share with the Cure is a willingness to make personal weakness central to their aesthetic. But where Mr. Smith cloaks his intimate feelings in romantic symbols like angels and spiders, the others ground theirs in details drawn from their own lives: the circumstances of a friend’s nervous breakdown or a death in a car crash.
Though his music often suggests a constant state of collapse, Mr. Smith, 45, is hardly an emotional wreck. Drugs influenced his darkest 80’s records, but his life is no ”Behind the Music” cautionary tale. He lives in suburban London, has been married for years to his high school sweetheart and takes an active hand in the management of his business affairs.
Mr. Smith has said that his musical idols are Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, a pairing that provides a clue to the balance he strikes between sad-clown artifice and authentic catharsis. Where Mr. Bowie has freely moved between personas, Mr. Smith has chosen his own lipsticked character to express that part of himself that is crippled with doubt, wracked by lust, fear and regret.
It’s easy to see how Mr. Smith’s theatricality would be more appealing to today’s young bands than the macho posturing of grunge and rap metal they grew up with. Mr. Smith’s makeup recalls the playful visual experimentation that characterized much of early 80’s pop culture. New bands like the the Faint, Interpol and Hot Hot Heat pick up on Mr. Smith’s more stylized transgressions. They adopt 80’s sounds and, to a lesser extent, looks in a quest for what they imagine was a heyday for artistic expression. For bands that don’t write confessional lyrics, the imitation of Mr. Smith’s yelp can simply be a way to convey urgency, even if its just an urgent need for bodies on the dance floor.
The Cure’s previous album, ”Bloodflowers,” from 2000, was supposed to be the band’s swan song. After its release, Mr. Smith left his longtime label, Fiction/Elektra, and pondered a solo career. It was Ross Robinson, the producer of bands like Limp Bizkit and Slipknot and a Cure fan, who convinced Mr. Smith that he should capitalize on this groundswell of young imitators. Mr. Robinson urged the band to record together live, which Mr. Smith had not done with any of his band’s many lineups since his first album. The approach, while not compromising the sound of the Cure, resulted in stretches that recall the aggression of Mr. Robinson’s harder-edged clients.
”The Cure” begins, though, with ”Lost,” a song the emo crowd would appreciate. Backing himself with spare guitar strumming, Mr. Smith admits, ”I can’t find myself.” The song swirls into a rabbit-hole of doubt. Similarly, the midtempo ”The End of the World” finds Mr. Smith singing, ”I can’t remember how to be all you wanted,” before he crashes into a chorus of ”I couldn’t ever love you more.” The exuberant chords of ”Before Three” contrast with the more doomy, metal-sounding ”Labyrinth,” which makes a horror movie out of aging, lamenting the changing face of a familiar companion: ”It’s not the same you/ It never really is.”
In the album’s final song, ”The Promise,” Mr. Smith yelps recriminations to a loved one long gone, showing goth fans he hasn’t strayed from a preoccupation with death. Of course, what ”The Cure” really demonstrates is death’s opposite. As he releases the new album and takes the stage with young admirers, Mr. Smith has succeeded in making overblown sadness a key to survival.
© Laura Sinagra