Used to be there was an unwritten rule in music criticism: Only employ “Beatles-esque” as a last resort. I mean, this band virtually created pop music as we know it, its influence so vast and multivalent that they were practically ambient. “Beatles-esque” was as utilitarian as “ethereal” and “angular.” Nowadays, I can’t even remember the last time I might have actually needed to use it. Same with “Stones-y,” and harmonies don’t really strike me as “a la Brian Wilson” that much either. When was the last time the Who or Pink Floyd were used as a signifier? I have no reason to get the Led out, but that’s only because I never reviewed a Greta Van Fleet album.
This phenomenon feels even more pronounced in 2019 as we celebrate anniversaries of years where all of those classic touchstones were necessary tools for getting at how, say, Elephant 6 or Summerteeth or Merriweather Post Pavilion fit within the lineage. Trends may be cyclical, but each revolution chips away at the monoliths while building up new ones; whomst among us would’ve predicted that the Grateful Dead would be cooler than the Clash amongst indie bands in 2019? Could that sort of decline befall the Cure? I only bring up these concerns about legacy because the Cure’s recent flurry of activity suggests they have the same ones.
Oh, they’re working on a new album, you might say. Their 2016 shows in Los Angeles included presumably new material, and Robert Smith has offered morsels of information: It will be “on the darker side of the spectrum,” inspired by the loss of his mother, father, and brother. It has, or at least had, a working title, Live From The Moon. It would — tell me if you’ve heard this one before — dip into the same deep water as Disintegration. They’re “hoping to complete work on it later this year,” which does not have the same ring as it might had it come from, say, Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. The Cure release albums at about the frequency of the Rolling Stones.
In the meantime, the Cure curated (er, Cure-ated) the 25th edition of the UK Meltdown festival, resulting in a mindblowing and yet sensible lineup that included Death Cab For Cutie, Deftones, Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine, the Libertines, Placebo, Low, the Psychedelic Furs, and Alcest. They also played Glastonbury in July, their first appearance there since 1995. They returned to Scotland for the first time since 1992, which seems impossible. In kind, this past Saturday welcomed the latest addition to the living museum of the Cure to Brookside At The Rose Bowl, a golf course next to a football stadium in suburban LA.
The immediate wow factor of getting the Cure, Pixies, and Deftones (amongst others) for $150 — essentially what it would cost to see just the Cure at Madison Square Garden and maybe pay for parking — hit hard enough to obscure how much of Pasadena Daydream could’ve been conceptualized by Robert Smith on a makeup wipe in two minutes. Only the most credulous interpretation — it shares one word with the title of the Cure’s last album, which came out 11 years ago — could relate the name “Pasadena Daydream” to anything in this band’s history. The festival did indeed happen in Pasadena, but as far as the cultural impact of Los Angeles County’s more suburban outposts, it’s only slightly sexier than “Burbank Daydream.” Pasadena is known for a Beach Boys song and the Rose Bowl and that’s pretty much it. Contrast the last two times I’ve been there: seeing waves of people dressed in all black in 95 degree weather compared to droves of Georgia and Oklahoma football fans. “Pasadena Daydream” is not the Cure. “Pasadena Daydream” is the name of a Funny Or Die Lana Del Rey parody. To paraphrase Tom Breihan, “Pasadena Daydream” is the name of a festival that books Chance the Rapper and gets cancelled for low ticket sales.
Likewise, the lineup itself is essentially a mini-Meltdown, lending to the possibility that the Cure might actually have bands on their payroll, in particular Icelandic post-punkers Kaelan Miklan and Scottish mopelords Twilight Sad, one of Robert Smith’s favorite contemporary bands and a frequent opener for the Cure. Even the bonus additions didn’t stretch far beyond Meltdown: Chelsea Wolfe’s certainly a welcome choice, but it felt like a doubling up on Emma Ruth Rundle for metal-adjacent doomsayers. Kirsten Hersh played at Meltdown under her own name and returned to Pasadena Daydream with a rare Throwing Muses performance. “Does anyone there know who they are?” an older friend asked, and sure enough, when their set began, the crowd was a fraction of what saw Joy Formidable earlier in the day. The Pixies were the second-biggest billing on the poster, and their T-shirts were outnumbered by those of Deftones by about a 25:1 ratio.
This might have seemed like an egregious misunderstanding of the Cure’s heavily Latinx SoCal fanbase, but everyone was probably done a favor by having Deftones play at 4:45 instead of the Pixies’ 6:30 set time. The Pixies could easily be enjoyed while braving the absurdly long lines for food, whereas Deftones were the only band that inspired a mosh pit or any mass demonstration of fanatical love that rivaled those for the Cure. I saw tattoos of the Deftones album cover, and with the possible exception of “Minerva,” they don’t play anything from it anymore. In about two months, Deftones have their own festival two hours away in San Diego, and it’s got an even better lineup than this one. That said, they haven’t yet earned a level of deference that the Cure still command. “I’m way happier to be here than you are,” Chino Moreno laughed from the stage.
So why not celebrate the Cure still being one of the only bands in existence that has the gravitational pull to create a universe in their image on a fucking golf course in Pasadena. Twilight Sad and Joy Formidable, praised by Variety as “newer indie acts” in an article that mostly exists to proclaim the presence of Lady Gaga and her boyfriend, were both deeply my shit a decade ago. Both have gone on to release just-OK albums that give little indication of how captivating they still can be in a live setting — and how much their stage presence owes to the Cure. When I saw Pixies last year, they seemed like the band that made Indie Cindy: demoralized, diminished, and getting blown the fuck off stage by Weezer. This time around, they made me think of what it might’ve been like to see the Pixies open for the Cure at Dodger Stadium nearly 30 years ago.
I also wonder what it might’ve been like to see the Cure back when they still had worlds left to explore and conquer. That said, the Cure sound fucking amazing going into their fourth decade together. Although Simon Gallup sprints across the stage with his low-slung Thunderbird bass like an alternate universe Duff McKagan and Reeves Gabrels is as ageless as one might expect of a guy who played with David Bowie, it’s not that they sound young. Quite the opposite: Regardless of where it’s sourced in their career, every Cure song that survived to make it into their 2010s setlist is inherently timeless. Disintegration is forever the centerpiece; though they perfunctorily began their 2009 Coachella performance with 4:13 Dream opener “Underneath The Stars,” I can’t imagine them ever starting out with anything other than “Plainsong,” and it seems like they’ll always end with “Boys Don’t Cry.”
There’s no such thing as a bad Cure setlist, unless it somehow consisted of only deep cuts from Wild Mood Swings or something — and even then, I’d pay good money for the Cure committing to such a batshit idea this late in the game. No matter what the Cure play, everyone will be satisfied and also left playing a little bit of armchair quarterback later on. No hit goes untouched, and the biggest were reserved for the encore, the inherently ironic act of rewarding their obsessives with the most ubiquitous songs. But even those are reinvigorated in competition with each other — “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Caterpillar,” and “Close To Me” all happened within the span of about six years.
As usual, “In Between Days” was followed by “Just Like Heaven,” and just maybe it’s Smith’s revenge against the initial criticism that those two songs were too alike. Smith has bristled at people who first found the Cure through “Friday I’m In Love,” but it isn’t a fluke hit like “Creep” or “She Don’t Use Jelly.” It’s probably the best pop song he’s ever written. Both its structure and its lyrical sentiment are the stuff of Swedish hit factories. How could this be from the same guy who wrote Pornography? Or the band that ends a crowd-pleasing festival with “Shake Dog Shake,” the maniacal opening of one the most deep drug phase albums ever made, and follows it with “39,” a keyboard berzerker from the otherwise complacent Bloodflowers.
Perhaps the past two years aren’t meant to revive the Cure’s legacy so much as they are to stoke excitement for Live From The Moon or whatever it ends up being called. Watching the Cure operate at this level, it’s possible to imagine their Time Out Of Mind or You Want It Darker even though there’s a legitimate argument that the Cure haven’t made a great album since Disintegration, which celebrated its 30th birthday this year.
I don’t quite buy that argument; Wish has its share of filler, but so does every Cure album that isn’t Disintegration. I wholeheartedly agree with Stereogum’s prior assessment of Wild Mood Swings as their worst album by far, but even in that case “Want” and “Jupiter Crash” are worth salvaging. Bloodflowers dropped during a particularly morose and drunken time for me in college, so I’ll always have its back. Catastrophically under-appreciated opener “Lost” aside, the Ross Robinson-produced self-titled from 2004 didn’t make good on its promise of the Cure making a Deftones album instead of the other way around. 4:13 Dream was the right kind of forgettable — good enough to not be the worst Cure album, but not good enough for Smith to reach for it during nights like this.
Truth is, short of a lengthy public cancellation a la their archrival Morrissey, the Cure will remain a touchstone so long as the concept of alternative rock exists; they’re basically living alt-rock history. Whenever there are bands playing prickly post-punk, you can mention the Cure. Murky goth ambience? That’s the Cure too. Synth-pop, arena-funk, twee, even the remix album: The Cure did that. They thankfully include “Burn” in their sets, by far the best song on The Crow’s soundtrack, where they were completely at ease amongst Nine Inch Nails, but also Rage Against the Machine, Pantera, and Helmet (I’ll belabor the obvious point that the latter three plus the Cure basically equals Around The Fur). Even as their 2000s output did little to burnish their reputation, other bands spoke on their behalf, whether we’re talking about dorm-room makeout staples from Interpol or the xx, the arena-synth bangers of Purity Ring and Chvrches, or the mascara-stained emo-pop of AFI and My Chemical Romance. Robert Smith did guest vocals for blink-182 and Crystal Castles and killed both tracks. Frank Ocean created a Boys Don’t Cry magazine. Wherever sadness is stylish, the Cure lives on.