Electric shock of voluminously frazzled hair, baggily dressed in what else but black, the Cure’s singer, songwriter and guitarist Robert Smith is one of those rare rock stars whom you can recognise even in silhouette. His band’s shadowy yet anthemic music – comfortably the creepiest thing to crawl out of Crawley, West Sussex circa 1978 – remains every bit as unmistakable. Pop from the dark side, gloomy post-punk that reaches for the light – call it what you like. The Cure are still top of the goths.
What was originally planned as a tour in support of their long-awaited 14th album Songs of a Lost World – still apparently unfinished, despite its title being publicly announced – proves a sprawling mix of greatest hits set, assorted root through lesser-visited corners of their discography, and a road-test for new material. At two-and-a-half hours in length, there’s plenty of time for all three.
Having haunted arenas longer than some ghosts haunt cathedrals, the Cure have their live sound down to a towering tee – headphone music at megadome scale. Featherlight guitar filigrees land like hammers, dolorous synth string drones rumble from the deep. Smith’s agelessly yearning and yelping vocals, his lyrics steeped in suburban ennui and true love against the big, bad world, are the voice of the eternal moody teen. Pictures of You, the shimmering seven-minute reverie that launched a thousand shoegaze wig-outs, is a chest-punch both figurative and real that sounds and feels more vivid and alive than any 33-year-old song has a right to. Not bad coming from six men who look like they’re on their way to a dressed-down funeral.
The Cure are one of the few bands upon which practically any artist ever labelled “alternative” can surely agree, and the DNA of movements they’ve helped seed are scattered everywhere in their set. The hopelessly devoted Lovesong we can perhaps squarely credit with inspiring emo; The Walk will later map out the shiver and clang of industrial electronica. If stock still and lost in the dream is the Cure’s default stage stance – keys player Roger O’Donnell so much so that you wonder if someone shouldn’t give him a friendly shake just to check he’s still with us – leather clad, bequiffed and tattooed Simon Gallup as usual hasn’t gotten the memo. One of the coolest bass players ever to do it, he prowls the stage, mounts the monitors and deadeyes the crowd, instrument slung so low it’s nearly scraping the floor.
Shaped by the deaths of several members of Smith’s family, Songs of a Lost World threatens to be a bleak record even by the standards of a band whose biggest album, 1989’s four-million selling Disintegration, is a hallucinogenic exploration of clinical depression. And yet, several new songs sound rooted in the sweeping, enveloping end of the Cure repertoire that dares to be beautiful – the operatic And Nothing Is Forever, for instance, or the post-rock machinations of Endsong. “I could die tonight of a broken heart,” sings Smith on A Fragile Thing, lest anyone worry that the 63-year-old goth godfather is going soft in his advancing years. On I Can Never Say Goodbye, a tribute to his late brother, Smith goes one further by quoting a witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Something wicked this way comes.”
The first of two encores mines some of the darkest nights of the Cure’s soul. Faith’s funereal dirge precedes the atonal, queasy churn of One Hundred Years, as discomfortingly embellished by black and white photographs of 20th-century warfare, culminating with a mushroom cloud. It all apparently gets too much for Smith somewhere in that sequence and his eyeliner starts to run. “It’s really hard sometimes being on stage when I start crying, for fuck’s sake,” he mumbles, mildly embarrassed.
Come the second encore, we get a whole other side of the Cure – pop infiltrators, relentless Top 40 hit machine, unlikely legends of the indie disco. Friday I’m in Love jangles, Close to Me wriggles and shakes, In Between Days and Just Like Heaven are a brace of breathless, rushing euphoria. Boys Don’t Cry ends by taking us back to the start of their career, with a spry, scrappy and fearless post-punk song about masculinity versus unbridled emotion that still says the unsayable today, much less in the late 1970s. The Cure contain multitudes yet still somehow never sound like anyone else but themselves. Boys may not have cried, but one or two grown men undoubtedly did.