What Ails Him?

The Cure's Robert Smith reveals the man behind the makeup

It would be so easy to dismiss The Cure as a band that has outlived its usefulness, that exists long beyond its expiration date. Its best, or at least best-known, moments live in another time, one long since past -- the 1980s, to be precise, back when "Let's Go to Bed" and "Boys Don't Cry" and "The Love Cats" and "Hot Hot Hot!!!" were as inescapable as boys in mascara and girls in tattered black gowns. That band seemed so of a moment, fusing punk's sovereignty and New Wave's delight with the burgeoning Goth movement's pale-faced despondency. Listen again to Standing on a Beach, 1986's absolute best-and-rest-of, and 1987's double free-for-all Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and it becomes wonderfully clear how much The Cure band was part of that decade's soundtrack -- all those swirling guitars and pitiable words, that deceptively happy jingle coupled with a baleful jangle. The Cure was, once upon a long time ago, an inescapable presence, even if you weren't quite paying attention.

That the band still exists today is something of a mystery. The Cure released only two studio albums last decade: 1992's modest hit Wish (it did contain the single "Friday I'm in Love") and 1996's capricious Wild Mood Swings; around the time of the latter, front man Robert Smith -- the only remaining original member of the band he founded in suburban Crawley, England, in 1976 -- said the band was pretty much done for. Had been for a while, he hinted, though various lineup changes over the years revealed the obvious: Smith was the band. That, it seemed, was that -- a tearless goodbye for one of rock's saddest little bands.

Yet two months into the year 2000, 24 years after its formation, The Cure is releasing its 13th studio album, Bloodflowers. That it ranks high among the band's best albums -- nine sublime songs of such understated, roiling beauty you're tempted to revisit the entire back catalogue with a revisionist's sense of wonder and awe -- is the sort of thing for which the word "irony" was invented. Three decades of existence would destroy most bands, reducing them to fragments, rubble and shadows; as it turns out, some groups just need a little more time than others to get things right. As it is, Bloodflowers is fashioned from the best pieces of 1982's Pornography and 1989's Disintegration, down to the lifted fragments of words and melodies that surface on Bloodflowers. There's a reason the cult speaks of the new album as the final piece in a trilogy: Because it evokes the best of yesterday's ghosts, makes tangible and compelling the echoes of albums that spoke directly to an audience that looked to Smith as its pale and forlorn leader.

The last waltz? Robert Smith and The Cure bid farewell on Bloodflowers.
Paul Cox
The last waltz? Robert Smith and The Cure bid farewell on Bloodflowers.
Yeah, but who wore more makeup  --  Mr. or Mrs. Robert Smith? The wedding, in 1988.
Tom Sheehan
Yeah, but who wore more makeup -- Mr. or Mrs. Robert Smith? The wedding, in 1988.

Yet, as it turns out, Bloodflowers is also The Cure's final album; this time, Smith says, the farewell is real. He has already begun working on a solo album on which he may or may not sing -- all the better to defuse expectations attached to the brand name. Like John Elway and Michael Jordan, The Cure exits on a proud moment. If, in fact, this is the end of the band, there is no better way to say goodbye than with Bloodflowers, a record that contains songs such as "Watching Me Fall" (on which Smith sings of "the ordinary me"), "The Loudest Sound" (silence, it turns out), and "Out of This World" that are very much the product of a 40-year-old married man making peace with his role as tour guide for what he calls "a ragtag army" of followers.

For his final act -- his final gift, perhaps -- Smith offers what he can only describe as "the perfect Cure album." He likes to think of Bloodflowers as a distillation, a brand-new best-of, a history lesson made relevant for tomorrow. And so it swirls, it gyrates, it moans and groans, it grins slyly as it sheds a little tear; and, of course, it sounds like what you and Robert Smith expect a Cure album to sound like, though never does it bog down in nostalgic reverberations. Sad to think that just as The Cure becomes vital once more, it waves adios.

Perhaps that is why, during the course of a nearly hourlong interview from his home in England, Smith is contemplative, offering answers that almost become monologues. He speaks of the past, of his desire to appease those Cure cultists who grew up and shed the makeup but never filed away Pornography or Three Imaginary Boys or The Head on the Door on the never-to-be-heard-again shelf. He talks about the 24-year-old lad in a dress who started The Cure just to be heard, and of the 40-year-old who couldn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him. He laughs when he gets too deep, but pushes onward -- unashamed, unabashed, perhaps even a bit unfulfilled. One gets the sense that he'd say much the same thing speaking to no one but his mirror. It would be unfair to Smith to condense his thoughts into sound bites. The Exploding Boy speaks in paragraphs.

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