If you believe the reports, the Cure is putting on a half-decent live show for the first time in 20 years. On their current tour, the perennial goth-rockers are playing three-hour sets featuring some of their best tunes and are actually putting a little effort into it. It's about time. Like Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, Cure frontman Robert Smith's idea of entertainment usually means boring you half to death.
The iconic new-wave/rock-goth/alternative band has worked a rapturous duality since its 1976 inception, balancing ecstatic dance-floor classics like "Boys Don't Cry" with psychedelic washouts like the 11-minute "Watching Me Fall." They both have their place.
Happy Cure includes a body of timeless classics that can make the most morose, pale-faced social outcasts bounce around like popcorn. Smith is no Morrissey, but he's a pop poet capable of penning reliably universal tunes about loving, being loved, and staying out late. The peppy 2004 single "The End of the World" smoked pretty much everything that's come from the Cure's emo disciples. "You want me to cry and play my part/I want you to sigh and fall apart/We want this like everyone else" reflects more than just the singer's feelings. And it says it with style.
In Stoner Cure — the slow, plodding stuff — guitar chords shimmer and wither. It sounds great as white noise, and it's superb chill music. Bloodflowers (from 2000) may be the band's most coherent album since the group's late-'80s commercial breakthrough — even though it doesn't have a single song that'll make you break a sweat. Unless you're enjoying it naked, with 18 lit candles, a gallon of Syrah, and a special friend. Credible vets say Stoner Cure can be good — even menacing — live. It's easy to understand how the monotonous "Fascination Street" makes college-age fans swoon — especially if they're half-gooned on pharmacy-grade cough syrup or something stronger.
Even when the Cure hit the jackpot in 1987 with the unbridled bliss of "Just Like Heaven," the near-perfect double album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me had a 4-to-1 ratio of hashed-out shoegazers ("Like Cockatoos") to joyful rave-ups ("Why Can't I Be You?"). And if you ever bought a concert ticket hoping to hear a song-by-song run-through of the band's terrific singles collection, Staring at the Sea, you probably left wanting a refund.
The last time the Cure toured the U.S. — headlining 2004's Curiosa Festival with fans/imitators Interpol — Smith stormed the stage with all the verve, pep, and vitality of Jabba the Hutt.
At the band's Blossom Music Center stop, a full pavilion stood nonplused as Smith and his band stood motionless, trudging through protracted, super-dull versions of eight-beats-per-minute songs like "Disintegration." Clad in black, bassist Simon Gallup made a mockery of showmanship: standing on one leg, leaning close to the ground with his mouth open, and staring intently at the stage while swaying an inch from left to right — like he was surfing a syrupy wave of codeine. Nobody had a good time; don't lie and say you did. I was there. If you were digging the set, you showed it by standing still and staring. The languishing limeys even hammered flat "The End of the World," their liveliest song in a decade. Worst. Show. Ever.
And it's not like Smith doesn't still have it, because he does. Every time he wiggled his hips, the entertainment-starved ticket-holders would shriek with delight. Smith, however, didn't move those hallowed hips even a half-dozen times. It's hard to imagine a band expending less energy in exchange for ticket money.
Still, the spark-plug memory of "Boys Don't Cry" draws fans to concerts in droves. For once, Smith is delivering the sort of electric show you get only from Cure cover bands. Many of the current tour's sets feature chopped-and-screwed snoozers like "The Kiss." But peppered in there — if you can wait till the end — are shiny, happy hits like "Hot Hot Hot!!!" and "The Walk." Recent concerts have also included old-school faves like "Boys Don't Cry," "Jumping Someone Else's Train," and "Killing an Arab."
Also buried in there are a few new songs from the Cure's as-yet-untitled 13th studio record, which is due in September. The band is releasing a new single every month until then. It's the group's first album since a self-titled 2004 CD, which was produced by Korn's board man, Ross Robinson — who purportedly had to nudge the guys out of their torpor. Apparently, they didn't take kindly to Robinson's prodding, and Smith co-produced the upcoming record with Keith Uddin, who's worked with Björk and No Doubt.
The first single, "The Only One," sounds respectable — like a by-the-numbers "High" rewrite with all the Cure conventions: ribbed bassline, castrato vocal accents, guitar riff that tinkles like a xylophone, wind-chime percussion, and a bubbly beat. Now, if somebody would slip Smith some Red Bull to go with his red lipstick, the show could be a real party.