The Cure

Seventeen Seconds / Faith / Pornography Reissue

(Rhino; 1980/1981/1982/2005)

By Clayton Purdom | 1 June 2005

This site doesn’t review movies, but if it did, I’d give the new Star Wars joint a 68%. (I’m going somewhere with this.) Some nice action sequences, a good performance from Ian McDiarmid, and an enhanced Wookie presence almost made up for a comic Yoda, wooden dialogue and, uh, whatever Samuel L. was doing. But I sat in the dark of the matinee in mute disgust; I couldn’t shake my repulsion that, after five hours of shitty prequels, we all still packed in to watch the latest disappointment. George Lucas bends over and sprays chunks at the moviegoing public, and we all run behind him with buckets, catching his refuse with eagerness, and gaze down in those buckets with righteous indignance when we find that they’re filled with, well, shit. (Seriously, I’m going somewhere with this.) All of which made me wonder what I was doing there, if I was so elevated. Soul-searching ensued.

A week later, I was listening to the second batch of Cure reissues, and the resoundingly simple answer struck me:

Everybody loves a trilogy.

Lucas thought he’d out-trilogied everyone (“A prequel trilogy!”), but he’s the asshole who brought us Howard the Duck, so he doesn’t count. Besides, it was Robert Smith & Co. who brought us the trilogy within a trilogy --- the metatrilogy, if you will --- that trumps all others.

I’ll explain. (Clears throat.) In 1979, the Cure released a batch of spare, incendiary punk songs called Three Imaginary Boys; the world lost its collective shit and hopes for the band were set immeasurably high. The band released three albums in the next three years: 17 Seconds (1980), Faith (1981), and Pornography (1982). Critics, historical revisionists, fans and vampires alike have since allayed a “trilogy” status on these albums; what was at the time just a burst of emotive prolificacy has since been interpreted as a thematic masterstroke. That’s fine --- people love a trilogy, after all, they’ll find one anywhere --- until in 2000 Smith declared that the Cure’s then-new release Bloodflowers was the third part of a second trilogy, beginning this time with Pornography and continuing with 1987’s Disintegration.

So what the fuck? There’s the 17 Seconds-Faith-Pornography trilogy, then the Pornography-Disintegration-Bloodflowers trilogy. Five albums, two trilogies, and one problem: it’s all bullshit.

People just can’t keep their shit together when it comes to retrocriticism of the Cure’s immense catalogue. Because of Smith’s penchant for literate dramatics, analysts scour these albums ruthlessly, fumbling hopefully for connective threads with the type of fervency usually reserved for readings of Gravity’s Rainbow. Trilogizing these albums was a way to imbue them with deeper relevance, to give an epic undertow, to build a bridge from punk rock sweat to arena rock greatness.

All of which is, again, fine --- I say, let the people have their trilogies --- unless of course it convinces some unwitting amateur goth to drop $22 on 17 Seconds, because that album straight sucks. In the trilogy, it’s said to represent the narrator’s desolation and emotional emptiness, which is the revisionist’s way of calling it boring. Go-nowhere mopealongs like “At Night” and “In Your House” feature the same steady drums, spare guitar lines and signature Smith whelps as Three Imaginary Boys, only with slower tempos, more air and less conviction.

The breathless sprinting teenager of the debut album can be found here on the side of the road kicking pebbles feebly. “Play For Today” is one of the album’s strongest cuts, but it works almost exclusively because of its ability to channel the debut album’s spirit. The only real highlight is “A Forest,” which captures the expansive gloom that the album’s other tracks only aspire to. It’s a throbbing, effortless classic, an early hallmark of the band’s capacity for experimental pop, buoyed by some of Smith’s most abstrusely affecting lyrics and a transcendent, pale-faced closing guitar solo. It’s also the fifth track of Staring at the Sea, a fact which essentially negates 17 Seconds’ appeal to anyone outside the diehards.

If 17 Seconds is an attempt at expansion that fell short (like a picture of a pubescent kid in his awkward phase) then Faith is that experiment successfully completed. A gorgeous, mature song cycle that addresses the primary question of faith (that is, “Why believe at all?”), Faith is among Smith’s most cohesive lyrical efforts, moving between metaphors and images with a newfound deftness and clarity. Space prohibits a full interpretation of the album’s themes, but lines like “No shapes sail on the dark deep lake / And no flags wave me home” (from “All Cats Are Grey”) help elevate Smith’s musings to more than the pissed-off poetry of previous efforts.

But Faith’s most marked development over its predecessors is musical. The faster tracks are furious, channeling all the band’s anger but with songwriting deep enough to sustain the energy for more than two minutes. “Primary” is like “A Forest” on fire, and “Doubt” features the type of caterwauling cymbal crashes and dissonant guitars that peel wallpaper. In between these two are “All Cats Are Grey” and “The Funeral Party”, the two of which constitute a sonic blueprint upon which future goth bands would base their entire careers; the Cure wouldn’t approach sorrow this epic or stately again until Disintegration. If you’re thinking of getting one of these reissues, buy Faith. If you’re not, buy Faith. It’s that good.

Pornography finds the supposed trilogy’s protagonist in the throes of abject insanity; the walls are bleeding, the sky is falling. “One Hundred Years” sets the tone: mechanic drumming clears the way for a spiraling, intestinal guitar line, with Smith’s voice throttling an emphatic, “It doesn’t matter if we all die” --- and things actually get more depressing from there. The album’s first half is dominated by this sound, like Closer-era Joy Division under a billion-watt heat lamp, with buzzing, paranoid, six-minute “songs” that seem to serve more as clearing houses for Smith’s bottomless misery than for any sort of listening pleasure. The band catches its breath with “Siamese Twins” and “The Figurehead,” opening up for air and healing the listener’s lacerated ears. The emotional bottoming out that occurs in the final three tracks --- particularly the album-closing title cut --- are just fucking devastating. These are poisonous sequences with no hope of even a cathartic renewal. This is hardcore.

Because it’s nigh-unlistenable, Pornography has the reputation of being the Cure fan’s Cure album. This is well-earned: even some of the most black-clad of devotees scoff at the album’s abrasive production and ludicrous lyrics. But Rhino’s remastered edition may finally open the cult up. In short, the album sounds phenomenal. Its tinny drums have finally been given the heft they need; they throb and spit in a convincing facsimile of the narrator’s title obsession. The guitars are suitably sinewy, and the vocals are infinitely more intelligible. If previous attempts at absorbing the album have failed, or descriptions like the one above (read: “fucking devastating”) have scared you away, this reissue is an excellent opportunity to give it another shot.

Or, you know, maybe not. Twenty-two bucks is a lot to pay for an album that essentially serves no greater purpose than to depress the living shit out of its listener. Rhino exacerbates the situation (see also: ups the price) by giving each album a second disc of outtakes, live cuts, and rarities, almost all of which are worthless. Part of the problem is that the vast wealth of the band’s unreleased output was already released on the Join the Dots box set. Its four discs exhibit the band’s sterling vault of b-sides, but the leftovers that comprise the second discs of these packages are not so impressive. The decision to release the best b-sides on a separate box set robs fans of a) a stellar opportunity to have definitive re-releases of the Cure’s work, and b) tons of fucking money.

Of course, it’s the Faith package that provides the exception to the rule. Tacked on to the end of the first disc is “Carnage Visors: The Soundtrack,” a 28-minute instrumental epic that fades and rolls and melts toward an unlikely climax; it falls apart, finds a new cycle, and continues burning quietly even as the volume fades. It’s a side of the Cure not often seen, and it serves as an excellent expansion upon the sonic themes explored in the album proper.

It is, technically, the soundtrack to a film made by bassist Simon Gallup’s brother, but this fact only illuminates how on-point the band was during this phase: a tossed-off jam as a fraternal favor ends up a blistering statement of the band’s ambient chops. Pornography may be a bit much for casual fans, and 17 Seconds is too wan for almost anyone, but Faith posits itself here as one of the Cure’s very best albums, easily on par with Three Imaginary Boys and The Head on the Door (if not Disintegration). Call it The Cure Strikes Back: if these albums are a trilogy, Smith followed Lucas’s template and put its strongest part right in the middle. Among the hallowed ranks of Cure albums, Faith is a sleeper classic.