What once was good for The Cure, no longer sticks

BY JOSHUA BAYER
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 26, 2008

The Cure
4:13 Dream
Geffen

Courtesy of Geffen

1 out of 5 Stars

The Cure was the crowned chameleon of '80s alternative rock, skittering anxiously from angular punk to doomy goth to sparkling dream-pop and everything in between. This bold eclecticism has lent the band a surprisingly long shelf life. But after over three decades of ricocheting between genres, The Cure now seems a little bit dizzy and considerably jaded.

Album opener “Underneath the Stars” really shows the group's strengths. A slowly aching heartburn that simmers for six majestic minutes, the track is a genuine purging of emotional sinuses and showcases The Cure at its haplessly romantic best. Drenched in reverb and peppered with trickling wind chimes, it’s the perfect song to listen to repeatedly after a particularly painful breakup. It’s a shame the rest of the album lacks the goosebump-inducing sincerity that ripples so warmly on “Stars.”

According to eyeliner-smitten frontman Robert Smith, the band cranked out a whopping 33 songs during the recording session for 4:13 Dream, an album initially slated as a double-album. It’s a blessing they narrowed the cuts down to one disc’s worth of music. At 52 minutes, the record already feels excruciatingly long.

Angry tracks like “Switch” and “It’s Over” feature Smith spewing out atonal rants over repetitive song structures, constantly venting without ever achieving true intimacy. The meek chord progression meanders back and forth, never building to the emotional climax that's absolutely crucial with such moody music.

The end of “Reasons Why” is a perfect example of the band’s declining ability to climax. Lean and muscular, with airy guitars, crisp drums and a buoyant bassline, the track slinks along sexily until Smith decides it’s the perfect time to bust out his monotonic caterwaul. After such cool-headed vibing, Smith’s splashy howl comes off as melodramatic and schlocky.

Even slower numbers like “Hungry Ghost” and “Perfect Boy” bring little variety to the table. They’re essentially tranquilized versions of the more testosterone-soaked tracks. Smith’s recent fetish for stuffing too much lyrical content down each song’s throat interferes with his typical knack for punch-drunk hooks. Without strong melodies holding the songs together, the bulk of the album blurs into an artificially-dreamy pastel smear.

A handful of tracks find ways to stand out, but not necessarily because they’re good. Lead single “The Only One” doesn’t hold a candle to The Cure’s radio hits of yore, but it’s the peppiest thing the band has recorded in a while. Party-starter “Freakshow” chugs along on unabashedly tacky death metal distortion and wah-wah pedals as Smith unloads about his sexual escapades. Though it’s absolutely ridiculous, the song is a jolt of much-needed energy in such a bleary-eyed song cycle.

The aptly titled “The Scream” is an oddity, even for The Cure. It starts off with promise, hinging on a tight groove that slowly gets lost in a hazy swirl of guitars and synthesizers. Then Smith seems to get lost himself, letting loose a bloodcurdling scream and continuing to “sing” in this mode for the rest of the song, redefining the term “emo” in the process. The whole affair feels unbelievably forced and is almost embarrassing to listen to.

Unlike The Cure’s earlier material, 4:13 Dream erects an alienating wall between the listener and Smith’s woozy ruminations on tainted love. Rather than stirring up empathy over heartache and heartbreak, it evokes pity for a once-prolific band suffering from a creative drought.