Of all the bands that emerged from the late ‘70s post-punk scene in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Cure hardly seemed like the one most likely to endure for four decades, let alone be headlining festivals.
But with the exception of U2, the Cure has somehow outlasted or outdone most of its generational peers, a band that can fill stadiums even as it maintains an almost pathological aversion to anything resembling compromise. Hits? Why play the hits at a festival when there are so many dark shadows to explore, shrouded in fog, drone and mascara?
At the 2018 Meltdown in London — a major festival both headlined and curated by the Cure and its guiding force, Robert Smith — the band refuses to pander. Among the 28 songs performed, only a handful could be described as hits. The band had plenty of songs that got commercial radio airplay, enough to fill a healthy greatest-hits collection. But few of them get trotted out on this night. Instead, the Meltdown performance offers something much deeper if far less conventional: a career-spanning dream set of deep cuts designed by its primary architect, arranged in two symmetrical sets. The band plays a track from each of its studio albums from beginning to end, 1979-2018 (“From There to Here”), and then from the end to the beginning, 2018-1979 (“From Here to There”).
“The Cure’s roots are in pop,” Smith once told me. “The early songs were inspired by the Beatles and — I was going to say ‘Satan’ (laughs) — but let’s just say the dark side of life. The unusual thing is that we’ve been able to retain both extremes of the band. We’ve managed to do ‘Friday I’m in Love’ alongside the dark stuff, and without the pop side we wouldn’t be nearly as good a band.”
But Smith added that “I don’t feel any emotional connection to that (pop) side of the Cure and I never have… I’ve always explained it to myself that it draws people in who otherwise would completely dismiss what we do.”
This is an artist, after all, whose liner notes for the Cure’s 1992 album, “Wish,” quote the 19th century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell/of saddest thought.”
The Cure’s career is founded on the contradictory notion of projecting the most fragile, intimate emotions on a sweeping, cinematic scale.
By 2018, Smith felt even less urgency to tap into the band’s lighter material, instead focusing primarily on the songs “of saddest thought” he held dear. Such an indulgence was enabled by a large, loyal audience devoted, no matter what, to the band and ready to follow wherever it led, no matter how bleak the destination might be. By that standard, the Cure is a cult band, albeit quite possibly the world’s biggest. If that sounds like a contradiction, the Cure’s career is founded on the contradictory notion of projecting the most fragile, intimate emotions on a sweeping, cinematic scale.
For Meltdown, Smith created a set list that cherry-picked personal favorites from each of the band’s studio albums, a career overview that reflected his tastes rather than those of the marketplace. In that sense, it underlined why the Cure remains such a revered and respected artistic enterprise. The band is often cited as an influence on or inspiration for several generations of artists, many of whom don’t particularly sound like the Cure. Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr., Nine Inch Nails — they’ve all sung Smith’s praises. The connective thread is not so much the actual music or presentation as the ethos behind them: Smith and the Cure have endured on their own terms, oblivious to shifting trends or commercial imperatives.
Mirth-free mood lighting and atmospherics prevail: a stage swimming in a shadowy mist of blue-green hues, the icy keyboards, the droning guitars, the pronounced bass lines, the tribal dol-drums. Smith holds down the center in his standard uniform, a prototype for Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands with his wildly teased hair, lipstick and eyeliner. His voice teeters between pleading and petulant, a sob and a snarl.
Compositions brimming with memories, apparitions and faded photographs of long-ago lovers turn into ebb-and-flow, arena-level drama.
“I hear the darkness breathe/I sense the quiet despair,” he sings at the outset on “At Night,” among the concert’s many ghost stories. The Cure’s revolving-door lineup has been anchored by Smith and, since 1979 with one brief interruption, bassist Simon Gallup. The 2018 lineup also includes former David Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels on guitar, drummer Jason Cooper and keyboardist Roger O’Donnell. The quintet conjures a dynamic platform for Smith’s introspective songs. Compositions brimming with memories, apparitions and faded photographs of long-ago lovers turn into ebb-and-flow, arena-level drama.
The initial songs track the 1980-82 goth-rock holy trilogy of “Seventeen Seconds,” “Faith” and “Pornography,” when the band centered its sound and established its world view. On “A Strange Day,” the end of the world is in progress, and Smith’s narrator is numb to it. The singer sways in place: “I laugh as I drift away.” It feels like a dream, a mushroom cloud of psychedelic shapes spilling out across the video-screen backdrop.
The real and surreal mingle in song after song, most memorably in “Pictures of You,” with its long intro as Smith’s guitar goes toe-to-toe with Gallup’s assertive bass line. It’s a beautiful love song to a mirage, a glancing image of what once was.
Yet as the albums and the years roll by, and the chronology melts into the ‘90s and the 2000s, Smith untethers himself from his ‘80s millstones and a kind of buoyancy surfaces on “High” and the randy “Jupiter Crash.” The first set’s high point arrives on “39,” written when Smith was on the cusp of turning 40 and feeling his mortality. But he’s not whimpering about it; Gabrels’ vicious slide guitar brings down an avalanche of sound.
After all, what good is facing one’s demise if you can’t do it in style? On the epic “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” in which Smith’s acoustic guitar provides a platform for Gabrels to go nuts, a fractured relationship becomes like a drug, the narrator desperate to quit but pulled back every time he tries to break away.
The penultimate song, “A Forest,” brings the band full circle, back to the moment where it found its voice. Keyboards whoosh overhead while bass and guitar tangle in the foreground, the foreboding mood mirroring a song in which the narrator feels overwhelmed by what he wants but can’t attain. He’s lost and alone, but the music expands from minimal, stark gestures into something bigger, more enveloping, a giant wave that may carry him to safety or drown him. Either way, Smith ventures deeper in, “running towards nothing, again and again and again and again.”