ILM's latest artist poll is for The Cure, and I tried putting together my ballot the way I normally do. Rather than putting together a giant shortlist of songs and whittling it down, I usually make very stingy choices, picking only my clear favourites. This often leaves me with a list that's shorter than the length of the ballot I need to submit, but ranking those songs is a lot more straightforward and to the point (reducing the signal to noise, so to speak, but starting out with fewer candidate songs). Having already taken care of the hardest part, I can then fill in the lower portions of my ballot.
Except that this time, I ran into a brick wall. I made the usual stingy shortlist, and was lost in trying to rank them. I started listening to a bunch of Cure songs, but that made me add more songs to my shortlist, making the problem worse.
I was surprised that it was so difficult, but I shouldn't have been. I realized it's all symptomatic of a very simple fact -- I've been listening to their music for over twenty years and have never been able to define my relationship to their music. Usually you know where you stand with a band, especially after growing along with them for a couple of decades (needless to say). Bands are subconsciously slotted into countless categories, such as your absolute, all time favourite bands, bands who you liked for a few years and grew out of them, bands who have a handful of great songs you like but whose music you never buy, etc. Sometimes bands can hop between categories, but usually they don't, especially once you've spent a few years following their career and listening to their music*.
[*here's a counterexample to demonstrate what I do not mean by this. Once upon a time, I knew who the Velvet Underground were, understood that they were considered a legendary band, an immeasurable influence on the entire alternative music scene ... but aside from hearing "Sweet Jane" occasionally on the radio, I never listened to their music at all. I only "discovered" them properly in the late 90's and pretty much became obsessed with them immediately. So the VU were an "all time favourite" from the beginning, i.e. from the point I properly discovered them. They didn't switch from "legendary band with no relevance to me personally" to "all time favourite". On the other hand, The Cure have been changing categories for me ever since the late 80's, and at times have even been nearly uncategorizable.]
With The Cure there is a huge disconnect between the songs I liked by them when I was 16, 26, and 36. The teenaged me would have put "Just Like Heaven" at the top of his ballot without thinking twice. You couldn't be into alternative music in those days without being reasonably versed in the songs of the Cure. Not listening to them was as unthinkable as listening to classic rock radio and not caring a whit about Zeppelin or the Stones. You liked them whether you wanted to or not, not least because you probably knew a few girls at your school who were massive Cure fans and you could only hope that you were cool enough to date one of them. But the teenaged me didn't dive too deeply into The Cure's back catalogue. I listened to the Disintegration singles on the radio, taped them all and listened to them a million times, but somehow never bought (or even heard) the album. I owned "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me" and "Standing on a Beach" and for the longest time, those cassettes (along with whatever singles were being played on the radio) were the extent of my Cure vocabulary. I never became obsessed with Robert Smith's lyrics (or thought he was a great lyricist), never wanted to dress like him, and didn't care for most goth music. I liked "Mixed Up" because I loved dance music, and the idea of the Cure getting the remix album treatment (even at a time when every band was getting the remix album treatment) seemed hilarious and unexpected.
Twenty something me hardly listened to The Cure, perhaps not a surprise since I'd never been that into them to begin with. They'd blown up huge with the "Wish" album and especially with "Friday I'm In Love", which went into such heavy rotation that I (and most people) became sick of hearing it. When you also consider that the band were mostly on hiatus from 1993-1996, it became rather easy to ignore the Cure for a long while. Twenty something me finally saw the Cure play live (on the Dream Tour in 2000) but it was one of those things I figured I had to do at some point in my life. It didn't trigger a rediscovery of the band's music. I hadn't even listened to a note of "Bloodflowers" before seeing the concert.
Thirty something me could hear or download practically any Cure song from the internet on demand. Slowly I started to discover parts of their back catalogue that I'd never heard before. This didn't just spontaneously happen over the past few years. I may not have listened to them much during the 90's but when I did, I was usually discovering many of their older songs and diving deeper into their catalogue, beyond the more well known songs. I was mostly listening to live albums like "Concert", "Paris", and a recording of their Finsbury Park concert in 1993 (their last concert before taking an extended break for a couple of years) that quickly became one of my favourite live recordings by any band. In short, the songs (and eras) of The Cure that I value now are very different from what they were twenty years ago, which is why this ballot has been so difficult to put together.
It's easy to see why some people have grown out of The Cure. You listen to 1982's "Pornography", and you're hearing a fairly disturbed dude who's hiding some dark and twisted secrets. It's not hard to understand why high schoolers would relate to him, or even idolize him. These days, The Cure are expert salesmen of gloom and nostalgia in equal measure. Robert Smith hasn't changed his look in over twenty years and he can't now, because it's an integral part of his sales pitch. Just like James Brown looked the same and danced the same and did the whole feigning exhaustion only to throw off his robe and return to the mic bit until the day he died, Robert Smith knows what's expected from a Cure show, hint of self parody or not. He markets his brand of music every bit as well as the Stones market theirs. The Stones haven't been decadent rebels for a million years, but they know how to put on the act, feigning the part and making the nostalgia come alive. They're so good at it, they can play the arena shows and festivals until the next ice age. This is all true of The Cure as well.
Maybe with The Cure it was pantomime all along, who's to know? But I enjoy being a Cure fan now more than I did when they were at their "peak" from 1987-1992. I know their music better now, and appreciate their body of work more than I did back then. They bust their asses every night, playing three hour shows and changing the set list every night. They still release a new album every few years, and while you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for a classic (this has been clear ever since 2000's "Bloodflowers" failed to live up to expectations) they don't run in place and still have a knack for turning out a few songs on each album that stand up well to almost anything from their career. These days, I'd rather hear them play "The Only One" (yet another typically great Cure-style pop single) than "Lullaby" or "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" for the thousandth time.