The band's first British top-40 entrant, the claustrophobic 1980 single "A Forest," typified the shrouds of grinding gloom and skeletal danse macabre cloaking the early '80s albums Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography. Yet when the Cure finally became a U.S. stadium act almost a decade later, their melancholy, while no less palpable -- see "Love Song," 1989's pining number two hit -- was subsequently superseded in the early 1990s by the MTV vision of vocalist Robert Smith donning smeared red lipstick and shrieking giddily about being in love.
The band's massive new four-disc collection, Join The Dots: B-Sides & Rarities, 1978-2001 (The Fiction Years), documents this sprawling evolution, from snotty post-punks exploring funereal dirges and drug-exacerbated personal hells to Technicolor romantics who tempered despair with psychedelic rock, orchestral subtlety, and dancefloor deviance.
Naturally, such stylistic diversity polarizes the Cure's catalog and often their fanbase. Those who embrace the regretful riff-surfing on "Boys Don't Cry," might staunchly despise the sheer lunacy of "Friday I'm in Love." In an interview conducted shortly after the Cure fulfilled their contract with longtime label Elektra in 2001's Greatest Hits, Smith ruminated on the challenge of satisfying his creative muse and the legions of followers who anticipate his every move.
"Back at the very outset, when we were just making music for our own enjoyment . . . the audience didn't really come into it, because we didn't have an audience," he said. "I had no idea anyone wanted to listen to what we were doing. There were moments during the acoustic session when we finished a song, and I'd think, 'That was really good,' and then I'd have to think, 'Well, was it good enough for anyone else to hear?' That, for me, is a funny reawakening. When you first start out, you don't really care what anyone else thinks.
"[But] it dawned on me over the years that I really like it when the group affects other people. I really enjoy seeing them be affected. I always thought I was just doing it for my own reasons -- which I have been doing -- but I think that, probably, satisfying the audience has been higher up on the list than I had at first realized."
Dots is indeed propelled by this friction between the Cure's devil-may-care musical expression and their awareness of how their fanbase perceives them. Meticulously compiled and freely expanding on the sonic ideas of their proper albums, the set is no landfill of drunken throwaways or half-formed filler. Silly covers, a flipside staple, are limited to a schmaltzy lounge rendition of David Bowie's "Young Americans" and an 11-second hardcore goof on the Doors' "Hello I Love You." In contrast, their bluesy bar-band version of the latter and their trip-hop take on "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix are ace reinventions. Another popular B-side cop-out, the indulgent, extended-single mix, is also absent here, replaced instead by a tropical-percussion deconstruction of alt-rock radio fave "Just Like Heaven" and a snappier dreampop take on the album cut "How Beautiful You Are."
While a few instances of hilarity do crop up -- including 1978's whirling dervish "Do the Hansa," an early song ridiculing their first label, Hansa, that sounds like German Keebler elves prancing around band practice -- the Cure's emotional upheavals are also painstakingly formed. The disc spanning 1978-1987 paints a stark portrait of the Cure's demons: The Faith-era instrumental "Descent" scrapes out notes like a chisel on granite, "I'm Cold" resembles guitar solo-heavy classic rock laid waste by Public Image Limited, and "10:15 Saturday Night" bounces with paranoid, wiry impatience. Even tracks dating from when the Cure was essentially broken up (1982's banshee yowl "Lament [Flexipop Version]" and the eerie synth chatter of "Just One Kiss") or under the influence of chemicals ("Mr. Pink Eyes," with ghostly harmonica and piano palpitations), are odd, but never unlistenable artifacts.
Still, examine this early disc in the context of music popular at the time in both the U.S. and U.K. -- from chilled New Romantic detachment and Day-Glo new wave to bloated arena dinosaurs and light-rock dreck -- and the Cure's style is quite unself-conscious about prevailing trends or a standard "Cure sound." Like their mopey peers in the Smiths, who rode Morrissey's cheeky ambiguity and anguished wail to rabid acclaim during much of the same period, Robert Smith's own cries of alienation stamp any song he appears on as a Cure composition. But by the time the Smiths broke up in 1987, they were trapped in a jangly eternal adolescence, unable to break out of their lyrical spiral of irony, doubt, and insecurity. The Cure's deft ability to capture their narcissistic teenage expressions while managing to shape-shift synths, guitars, and drums into distinct mood pieces was the Darwinian trump card that allowed them to thrive in spite of the turmoil.
These metamorphoses, of course, had much to do with their lineup's revolving door. (Smith is the only original member to have remained in the band for its entire existence.) But the Cure's career-long penchant for experimentation emerges as well on the two discs covering their commercial peak years, 1987-1992 and 1992-1996. While both have plenty of dreamy, floating, glum numbers ("Play," "Fear of Ghosts") and exultant, dizzy yowls ("Halo"), the tangents from such towering chords are much more intriguing. A 12-inch remix of "Hey You!!!" uses free jazz, "A Japanese Dream" roars psychedelically, and "2 Late" and a 12-inch mix of Wish's "Doing the Unstuck" are New Order-esque synthpop hums.
And when these experiments go awry -- the fourth and weakest disc, covering 1996-2001, features a grating robotone mix of "Just Say Yes" and Paul Oakenfold's limp, jungle-spooky retooling of "Out of This World" -- their boldness deserves commendation. Indeed, these tracks aren't artistic failures, only representations of how Cure band members have always challenged themselves and their audience without worrying about commercial repercussions. "The band, to me, has always been [about] not slipping into kind of a role, [not] just going through the motions," Smith said in that same 2001 interview. He's right: Dots connects the Cure as musicians battling inner darkness and expectations, from within and without -- and eventually finding hints of levity, if not bliss, from remaining poets perpetually in motion.