They work hard for it, Robert Smith & Company. You understand Dolly Parton’s show business dictum, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”? Then you understand the generative contradictions of the Cure: It must take a lot of optimism to look that disenchanted. But in a certain corner of the band’s work, the opposite holds true, too: It has to take a lot of disenchantment to look that optimistic. And from there you can spin out other noun-adjective combinations, which similarly work in forward or reverse: confidence/shaky. Centrality/marginal. Generosity/self-absorbed. Forethought/nostalgic. Hardness/tender. Severity/sweet.
By “look” I don’t only mean physical image, and I’m not only talking about Mr. Smith, whose appearance on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, in the first of his band’s three-night run there, was the same as usual: loose black clothes, Struwwelpeter hair, black eye shadow and eyeliner, red lipstick that covered slightly more than the area of his lips. I mean visuals, sound and cultural meaning as one integrated and basically globalized post-punk thing — unwavering and with remarkably little grandstanding, for nearly three hours.
The live sound of the band amounted to an atmosphere: Simon Gallup’s rugged, grip-tape bass lines, high up in the mix; the pallid beams of Roger O’Donnell’s keyboard melodies; Mr. Smith’s vocal wail and bright, watery guitar tone; the drummer Jason Cooper’s thump at medium tempos; the extra layer of echo, viscosity and whoosh from the lead guitarist, Reeves Gabrels. The atmosphere suggested nearly every black-walled, beer-sticky alternative-rock club I’ve been in since the late ’80s, places of joy and cynicism. In retrospect, those places seem built for, or by, the Cure.
Mr. Smith spent almost no time on chat and platitudes, swapped out his own guitars rather than wait for roadies and tuned up at least once on his own. There were background screen visuals for very few of the 32 songs, and the stage-camera work was negligible: mostly fixed in place and far away from Mr. Smith. It really was a club show writ large. Maybe it takes a strong club band to be a strong arena band.
A lot of Cure songs are either simple and short or comfortably repetitive in their middle sections when they push toward 10 minutes; not a lot of new strains, key changes and dynamics. But they are constructed with an almost classical sense of proportion and impact, and performed for even more: About two-thirds of the way through “Prayers for Rain,” Mr. Smith drew out a note near the top of his voice to drive home the last word of the title. The rest of the song was about coming down from that moment.
These songs become a disposition; you settle into them, and they keep coming. One source, setlist.fm, has tabulated that the band has played 79 songs so far on its current tour, which is a great amount for an old rock band. (The Cure began recording in 1978 and hasn’t stopped since, despite lineup changes.) The number may keep growing. Mr. Gabrels, in an interview last year, said that the band kept 97 active songs in its touring pool.
Saturday’s show had four sets of encores, and after the first three, Mr. Smith put his hand up on his clavicle, seemingly not so much as a stagy gesture of being overwhelmed, but as you might do reflexively to collect your thoughts when you’ve got a lot on your plate; he looked away from the audience and briskly walked off. After the fourth, he acknowledged us, modestly but with intent.
The songs here traced back 37 years — “Boys Don’t Cry” the oldest, “Pornography” the most transfixing, and the fourth set of encores, including “The Perfect Girl” and “Close to Me” the most joyous. In that span were a lot of different styles, telegraphed more through the songs’ outer layers than their cores. Which is to say it was often Mr. Gabrels’s job to signal the aesthetics of 1981, or 1992 or 2008. Mr. Smith’s cry could remain constant.
But there was a taut discipline here that made all that music cohere into one long project. Part of it has to do with the fact that Mr. Smith is adding new songs to the set, and they’re good ones. One of Saturday’s was “It Can Never Be the Same,” the beginning of the first encore, after “Disintegration,” steady and glum. (“That pit that we fell down,” Mr. Smith explained, “we’re staying there for a while, till we climb out.”) And the new song — its title rendered in big letters on his guitar — was grand, slow, fuzzy, swirly: of a piece with what had gone before.
It seemed to be about dealing with the death of someone close; it moved from optimism to pessimism, from “it’s not like there won’t be another one” to “there won’t be another one.” Did he tear up? He may have. (Mr. Gallup patted him on the shoulder at the end.) An online video from the band’s May 17 concert in El Paso shows him tearing up; that was only the fifth time he’d played the song live. According to setlist.fm, Saturday was the 19th.