One of the albums I played almost incessantly as a Sixth Former in the late 1990s was Whatever and Ever Amen, by Ben Folds Five. I’m not usually a fan of clever-clever geek-chic, but as a pianist dreaming of Tin Pan Alley, I liked the Real Book chords, and the harmonies were more California than Cornell quadrangle. The single ‘The Battle of Who Could Care Less’ was among my favourites: tortuous chord sequence, scuzzy bass, witty lyrics about the apathy of nineties youth. It’s all so good until you hit the punch-line: ‘This should cheer you up for sure, / See, I’ve got your old ID, and you’re all dressed up like The Cure!’ How it riled me (no danger of apathy there). Why on earth should one of the greatest British bands of all time wind up as some smartass punch line?
But then, many of you will remember Rob Newman in The Mary Whitehouse Experience, sulking his way through renditions of nursery rhymes and novelty songs recast as doomy Curism. In fact, for many people in their thirties and forties, Rob Newman probably is Robert Smith, just as for my parents the Bee Gees were synonymous with Kenny Everett’s disco dentures. Still, the Whitehouse treatment proved that The Cure were an integral part of British culture; anything so easily lampooned is clearly bedded in the national psyche. That’s one of the eternally surprising things about The Cure. They were the most ‘pop’ of all the great eighties indie bands, even more than The Smiths at their catchiest. Where Johnny Marr made old-fashioned guitars glitter and gleam anew, The Cure made no bones about their fondness for synthesizers. Where New Order sabotaged Top of the Pops with infamous live bugger-ups, The Cure mimed and embraced the dry ice (prompting a droll quip or two from John Peel into the bargain). And where most indie groups plumped for mufti, Robert Smith and the lads skimmed the Boots counters for product and pan-stick. In 1983, they were very 1983. The most delicious irony of all, however, is that Smith continued to smear his face long after Boy George had hung up his hairpieces. Now that’s indie.
Still, it’s often been difficult to know where to place The Cure. I’m sure they have as many fans as The Smiths, but they seldom make the Top 100 album lists, so Mojo readers and their like are denied multiple reiterations of their genius. For the record, so to speak, at least two or three of their 1980s albums are the equal of any of their peers’, and often outstrip for them for verve and variety. Disintegration is the consensual favourite, and a superb record it is. All that space in the sound, the guitar that makes me think, synaesthetically, of dripping honey; the synths that seem to embody some kind of Petrarchan contrary, refusing to decide whether they are ice or fire (‘Closedown’ is musical Reykjavik – geysers and snow). And, of course, ‘Lullaby’, surely the greatest evocation of pyjama paranoia in the history of pop, and The Cure’s highest charting single in the UK to boot. While the States rated ‘Lovesong’ (a no. 2 hit over there, no less), we in Britain prefer our Cure to be Grimm. Even those love cats are characters from some dark and surreal cartoon, twanging their double basses like extras from an outtake of Who framed Roger Rabbit. When you listen to the band from this angle, taking stock of the weird slurpy grub-noises at the beginning of ‘The Caterpillar’, or the funny flutes in ‘Close to me’, Rob Newman and Ben Folds seem very distant indeed. Yes, there are nightmares: ‘The Hanging Garden’, most of the Pornography album in fact. But the joy of ‘Friday I’m in love’ is real; the sixth-form buoyancy of ‘Boys don’t cry’ never palls; and the bonkers swing-beat of ‘Why can’t I be you’ still sounds like the cousin of ‘Walking on sunshine’ – a cousin with ADHD and a habit of drinking all the squash. Standing on a beach is easily one of my favourite greatest hits packages: from the tinny existentialism of ‘Killing an Arab’ to the miracle that is ‘In between days’ (depression trapped in a solution of euphoria, like a scarab in amber), there just isn’t a duffer on there. But it’s a weedy little song from 1980 that ends up growing, growing, growing, until it towers above its neighbours and blocks out all the natural light. It’s a scary song to find yourself in, but as with most things that make the heart beat faster, you can’t resist.
‘A Forest’ could have been the soundtrack to an unmade Herzog film about a young man losing his mind in the middle of the proverbial dark, dark wood. OK, so it’s The Cure, and it’s probably Epping Forest rather than some romantic schwarzwald, but despite the German predilection for wyrd sisters with gingerbread houses, British woods are more chilling anyway: so unheimlich, precisely because they are half-familiar. Clearly, Robert Smith’s forest is tightly packed, or that’s what I hear in the sound. There is no looseness, no funkiness here: no liberties are taken with the beat. Maybe the fact that I see rows and rows of conifers as I get trapped in the drone is down to experience. On a school expedition, I and my friends once got lost ourselves, inside a dense plantation in Northumberland. Trees had been felled since our map was printed, creating clearings where the OS indicated greenery. We ended up thrashing our way through thick-set trunks, parting fronds and stumbling onward for hours, undone by Kielder; the solitary barking deer might as well have been a minotaur guarding the labyrinth. It was hell at the time, but now, of course, it’s one of my romantic memories, a primal communion with landscape. There’s something heroic about being dominated by nature red in tooth and claw (see Edmund Burke for further particulars).
Hmm, I appear to have got lost in the forest. Back to The Cure! Robert is still running, his feet padding in time to Lol Tolhurst’s highly phased motorik beat. He urges us to follow our eyes, and as we do, the chords shift from atmospheric to downright sinister. We feel we’re blindly hurtling somewhere, though we’re rescued just in time with a fizz of cymbal, narrowly averting collision. Everything is thick yet spindly and meagre. It’s a stunning sound, less a production than a whole sonic universe. The guitars are emaciated, yet the disconcerting amount of flange and reverb gives them an extraordinary sound profile. They may be anaemic, but that’s the woods for you; we grab onto them, skeletal as they are, to help us negotiate some sort of track through the growth. When the keyboard quietly begins to shadow the bass, we feel something might be lighting up, but in fact it’s the opposite. The vapours start to swirl, the mist thickens; as Tom Verlaine might have it, ‘the darkness doubles’. Robert’s voice gains in echo as he finds himself more and more isolated, until suddenly he stops. It’s that horrid moment of panic, the point at which you realise you are utterly lost and there is no way out. In Smith’s case, the girl he has been following is revealed to be a hallucination. She was never there, he sings, confirming that there has never been a solution, an exit, an end. The Lorelei has claimed her victim; we are left with Smith’s unsettling voice, splitting into repeated ‘agains’, boomeranging off the bark before swinging back to us and whizzing past our ears like a dart.
This is real 3D recording. Why isn’t there a headphone equivalent of those funny specs they hand out in cinemas? That’s the thing about ‘A Forest’, you see; you want to be lost in it. You want to experience that disquiet physically. Yet there is an artifice that keeps the possibility at bay. The producer Mike Hedges has said that ‘nothing was quite natural’ in the recording process; the mix was laden with as many effects as it could take. This is what lends it an air of Hoffmann or Tieck; it creates the illusion of the slightly fantastical seeming more real than the ‘real’. It’s a song about the terrors the human mind can conjure, terrors that occur naturally but manifest themselves in surreal visions. That’s why ‘A Forest’ is the very, very best of The Cure: in fact, it is exemplary. They’re a band in which the natural, unnatural and supernatural are warped together into gnarly shapes, until there is no clear distinction between any of them. Supposedly ‘natural’ guitars are heavily processed; supposedly ‘artificial’ synthesizers sound more authentic. Supposedly ‘indie’ kudos is challenged by a gash of scarlet lipstick and a dash of self-mocking pop-gloss. And do you know what, I think it may just be funnier than Ben Folds Five. With The Cure, we really can be happy underground.