There's a tired bit of conventional wisdom about how The Cure’s music resonates most strongly with teenagers. It’s not totally wrong, necessarily—a fair chunk of The Cure’s catalog is mired and darkness, angst and depression. They’re as much a brand as a band, the stadium-filling spokesband for goth, their logo scrawled onto countless Trapper Keepers, their lyrics written on the inside cover of every yearbook. As Bart Simpson once astutely observed, “making teenagers miserable is like shooting fish in a barrel,” and the band’s frontman and songwriter Robert Smith was happy to oblige, and in lipstick, eyeliner and Aquanetted hair no less.
I had my share of teenage experiences with The Cure. I impulse-bought a CD copy of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me in the summer of 1999, after hearing “Why Can’t I Be You?” on a 91X Fourth of July countdown, and had it on regular rotation between Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel. Not long after that, a girl made me a mixtape of songs from their first three albums, which in hindsight sounds like it could have been a deleted scene from Pretty In Pink. I was introduced to The Cure much earlier than that, though, hearing “Close to Me” on my brother’s stereo, and my sister had a copy of Three Imaginary Boys on vinyl—the one where all the song titles are depicted as pictograms rather than with words. (The easiest one to decipher? “Meathook.”)
Since I was a kid, The Cure maintained a sort of lowkey background ubiquity, so it’s a wonder I didn’t I fully appreciate them until I was much older. Throughout my twenties I was drawn to the abrasion of the band’s post-punk albums, Seventeen Seconds and Pornography, their intense and rhythmic sounds providing a cathartic release that sometimes only metal or hardcore can compete with. I liked Disintegration too, but it’d be dishonest to say that I got it. The band’s most highly acclaimed album—their “masterpiece” according to a wide swath of critics—certainly sounded impressive, even gorgeous. But more often than not I found myself skipping to the singles “Lovesong,” “Lullaby” and “Fascination Street,” shorter and more accessible pieces that gave an immediate sense of gratification, where its longer tracks were dense and untouchable, like delicate pieces roped off with stanchions in a museum.
That changed not long before I turned 30. I won’t go so far as to say I was directionless or a fuck-up or anything so dramatic. My twenties were average by middle-class American white male standards, which is to say in context they weren’t really remarkable in any meaningful way. At the time, though, it was a slog—a slow, uphill climb fraught with poor decisions and unforeseen setbacks that seem like a comedy of errors now, but at the time felt like death by 1,000 banana peels. My cat died, I lost my job, my car broke down and stranded my girlfriend and me in the middle of nowhere, that same car was stolen after $500 in repairs, three of my grandparents died and my wife and I were kicked out of our house and threatened with a lawsuit—all in the span of two years. Worst of all, my twenties were going to be over soon, and most of what I had to show for it was a comical streak of bad luck that I’d now like to dub “The Aristocrats.”
Robert Smith’s twenties were far more impressive than mine. By the time he was 29 he had six great albums and one pretty good one under his belt, but was still afraid he missed his chance at writing his magnum opus. The despair and depression of his early-mid-life crisis, aided in no small part by regular use of psychedelics, led to the creation of Disintegration, a beautifully gloomy 72 minutes of existential dread and instrumental majesty. It’s a dive into some deeply personal angst from a singer/songwriter best known for covering over it with makeup and oddly-placed squawks, and as a result it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
At 29, for me, it clicked. Disintegration no longer seemed to me an untouchable piece of ephemera. It was stunning, even relatable. I wanted to lie on my back and do snow angels in the towering synthesizers of “Closedown” and “Plainsong.” I wanted to run marathons to the title track. I wanted to dial up the volume until the knob broke off and experience “Prayers for Rain” as physical sensation; I assume that’s what Smith & Co. wanted. The album sleeve reads, “This music is mixed to be played loud, so turn it up!” Ironically, lyrics about “the end of the world” and “running out of time” made me feel less panicked about getting older. Thanks in some small part to this album, I was ready to say, “Fuck it, bring on my thirties!”
I haven’t kept up that well with The Cure as they’ve released new material in the past 15 years—what little of it there is. They’ve only released three albums since 2000, and the only one that I spent much time with was 2000’s Bloodflowers. The Cure is like an old friend in that sense. We can go for long periods of time apart, but when we reconnect it’s like no time has passed. Yet the band’s music—sans newer albums—has become a constant presence in my life. I don’t go a few days without listening to “A Forest” or “Disintegration” or “One Hundred Years” or “Primary.” I started a band last year, and we covered five Cure songs on Halloween. And the girl that made me that mix of early Cure songs? We’re married now.
I’m now 34 and still haven’t accomplished anything as impressive as Disintegration (who has, really?). But it’s not like it’s the end of the world.
The Cure play May 20 at Sleep Train Amphitheatre