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The Cure’s new album, Bloodflowers, is about aging. But the above-quoted song is from 1977, when age-obsessed bandleader Robert Smith was 18 years old, playing in the Easy Cure, and still figuring out how to stack his hair into that trademark thicket.
Twenty-three years after “I Want to Be Old,” Smith, who will be 41 in April, has gotten his wish: He is old, at least in alt-rock years, and he’s winding down the Cure—yet again. Smith has threatened to end the band before, and the group has taken numerous hiatuses as Smith has sacked and hired more bandmates than Menudo. But in Bloodflowers’ 40-phobic “39,” Smith sings, “So the fire is almost out and there’s nothing left to burn/I’ve run right out of thoughts and I’ve run right out of words.” That song, the CD’s aura of finality, the end of a recording contract, and the threat of an instrumental solo album from Smith all indicate that Bloodflowers really is the Cure’s last goodbye—and perhaps it should be.
Smith claims that Bloodflowers is one of three truly classic Cure albums, alongside 1982’s Pornography and 1989’s Disintegration, written when Smith was dreading the age of 30. Although Pornography aptly captures a dismal period when Smith and band lived in a blur of drink and drugs, it’s a rigid and adolescent album that doesn’t hold up 18 years later—not like the dark but distinguished Disintegration, the lasting anti-pop album that Smith made to counteract the popularity of 1985’s The Head on the Door, truly one of the Cure’s best, and 1987’s sprawling Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, which yielded one of the band’s biggest and best songs, “Just Like Heaven.” Much to Smith’s horror, Disintegration made the Cure bigger than ever, appealing to both the lipstick-smeared goths who hung onto Smith’s every quivery-voiced word and to the frat boys used to going to rock shows at the arenas that the band was beginning to play.
Although 1992’s Wish had a hit in “Friday I’m in Love,” it was an average affair, and Smith spent the rest of the decade variously on tour, in legal wrangles, on hiatus, and drinking himself into “Fat Bob,” as the snarky Brit music press dubbed him. The Cure released Wild Mood Swings in 1996 to an audience enthralled by Britpop, not caring about some chubby dude in mime makeup and hightop tennies who looked as if someone had dropped a sack of wires on his head.
Bloodflowers will appeal to hard-core Cure fans, but it won’t recapture the larger public’s attention, and not just because it’s a single-free album that at first seems as monotonous as Pornography but with the washed-out production of Disintegration. Smith has always expressed his melancholy in terms a teenager could comprehend. But those teens and 20-somethings who first adored the Cure are now 30 and 40 themselves. Life probably is not as bleak as it seemed 10, 15, or 20 years ago, and the young fans who bought Pornography and Disintegration because they found comfort in Smith’s words probably aren’t looking for the same anodyne as they approach middle age.
The music of Bloodflowers is heavily atmospheric, owing deeply to the sound of Disintegration. Although there is a quiet strength to the band’s swampy guitar sounds and slowly rocking tunes, it reveals itself only after numerous listens, because the album is so samey-sounding. Smith’s distinctive voice rises above the din, but he (regrettably) has toned down his once uniquely hiccuping phrasings into singer-songwriter, semi-smooth croons.
After the eclectic Wild Mood Swings, Smith says, he wanted the listener to know instantly that Bloodflowers is a Cure record. On the album opener, “Out of This World,” Smith establishes the band’s signature by playing a melody line on his guitar that instantly recalls Disintegration’s “Pictures of You.” But unlike the soaring “Pictures,” “Out of This World” tunefully meanders for nearly seven minutes, drawing a blueprint for the other eight songs on Bloodflowers: The songs slowly unfurl in a tempo that would be described as “adagio” if they were classical. But this is pop, and “labored” is about as technical a description as you need.
Three of the songs—”Bloodflowers,” “39,” and “Watching Me Fall”—run over seven minutes long, with the last extending beyond 11, and they are the album’s most musically uninspired: songs that stretch but never get loose. “39” tries for psychedelic rock, but the cliched lyrics about the fire burning out subtract from its power. The title track suffers from similarly cliched lyrics—about sunsets, breaking waves. “The Last Day of Summer” features Smith singing, “It used to be so easy/I never even tried.” In Bloodflowers’ lyrics, Smith isn’t trying hard enough.
“There Is No If…” is a sweet ballad with the album’s only inspired lyrics: “Remember the first time I told you I love you/It was raining hard and you never heard/You sneezed! and I had to say it over.”
It’s a shame that Smith thinks that the styles of his giddier musical moments were too pop—from the quirky, New Wave gems “The Lovecats” and “The Caterpillar” to the jubilant “Why Can’t I Be You?” to the classic guitar-popper “Inbetween Days,” with its telling opening lines, “Yesterday I got so old/I felt like I could die.” He’s relegated such impulses to the dustbin for Bloodflowers, which would have benefited from the energy of his brilliant ear for hooks and knack for goofy but endearing arrangements. But, remember, Bloodflowers is about getting old, and, for Smith, there’s nothing quirky or cute about that.
“Maybe Someday” picks up the tempo with its four-chord stomp and squealing lead guitars, as Smith claims, “No I won’t do it some more, it doesn’t make any sense/If it can’t be like it was, I’ve got to let it rest.”
Let it rest, then, because things will never be the same. They never are. CP