Saturday, February 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me" by the Cure

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is a strange album. The Cure had, until that point, stumbled blindly through their career, swerving from tinny post-punk to doomy goth to cheesy pop and then to a rather mature form of 'alternative rock', as American radio stations had it at the time. Having just subjected themselves to a 'greatest hits' retrospective with a new verion of early track 'Boys Don't Cry' as a single, it must have been difficult for Robert Smith & co. to decide where to go next.

Which is clearly why they decided to have their cake and eat it too. Artists are rarely allowed double albums unless they're commercially viable, and in this case the Cure uses the extended running time to attempt a leapfrog obstacle-course around "The Many Moods of The Cure". Gloomy minor-chord epics rub shoulders with the snappiest of radio jingles, would-be sitars and funk bass lines wander in, and the whole thing attempts to summarise everything the Cure is capable of.

It is an adept summary, largely because disc two shows another thing the Cure are capable of: unmemorable hackwork. I had this album on cassette at the time, and that required a lot of rewinding, since almost nothing on side two really captures the attention. None of it's horrible (the worst moments are, in fact, probably on side one), but it just seems to go on and on, 74 minutes for no reason whatsoever. They pulled four songs as singles, songs which, when considered as a whole, give a highly misleading impression of this album. But they're all worthy songs, good if not great (in one case, about as great as music gets). What bothers about this album is not its diversity (a/k/a messy lack of focus) so much as its overriding blandness, standout singles notwithstanding. Robert Smith has to be aware that, for much of this album, he was merely churning them out, composing and recording songs merely to fill out the playing time. That being the case, then, why was this a double-length album? Why not release a single-length and leave some of these songs for further development at a later time? The only thing I can think of is that Smith felt he had something to prove by releasing a double. But what was he trying to prove?

A further question is why this album is sequenced the way it is: obviously it's a common enough strategy to 'front-load' one's albums by putting the most memorable tracks near the beginning. But Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me craps out in a quite spectacular fashion, with side four in particular being perhaps the most uninteresting side of vinyl the Cure have ever released.

Incidentally, there is an alternate way to trim this down to single-album status, one that I would be remiss not to mention: the Cure has a tendency to take its time 'introducing' songs, waiting about a minute and a half on average before the first vocal entry arrives. In the cases of 'The Kiss', 'If Only Tonight We Could Sleep', 'Hey You!', 'One More Time' and 'Shiver and Shake', the first half of the songs are instrumental. If you clipped the instrumental intros off of all 18 of these songs, you'd lose an amazing twenty-six minutes of this album, bringing it down to a more manageable 48-minute running time.

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Side one
  1. The Kiss (6:17)
  2. Just Like Heaven (3:30)
  3. How Beautiful You Are... (5:10)
  4. Why Can't I Be You? (3:11)
Side two
  1. Hot Hot Hot!!! (3:32)
  2. Catch (2:42)
  3. One More Time (4:29)
  4. A Thousand Hours (3:21)
  5. If Only Tonight We Could Sleep (4:50)

The Kiss: keep (side one, track one)

As 'surprising ways to open your album' go, this one ranks pretty high. Close-miced walloping drums and screaming wah-wah-soaked guitars suggest an altogether different British idiom - but in truth this has very little to do with 'metal', even if it's as 'heavy' as the Cure have ever been. The arrangement is certainly different, but much isn't: it's mid-tempo and angsty, and it blurs the line between 'vocal song with instrumental intro' and 'instrumental song with vocal coda' - in this case, it's almost four minutes of wah-wah orgy before Robert Smith opens his mouth, to wail the album title and to (gasp!) say a dirty word. I hated this song when it first came out, but now I like it. And not only because it's ballsy but because it creates an intriguing particular mood. And creating moods... at least as much as 'performing songs', that's really what the Cure is best at.

Gotta admire the perversity that is starting the album with the longest and most extreme song. Sure, it's the 'title track', but it's hardly the song that's going to break them out onto MTV, is it? Anyway, I like the effect it creates as a 'starting track', so I'm keeping it there.

Catch: keep (side two, track two)

This is a clever follow-up to "The Kiss", a very obvious 'back to earth' stylistic contrast with that wah-wah epic. This is a brief little string-enhanced 'ditty', impossible not to like. Sweet without being syrupy, it doesn't say much and it doesn't force itself into your head like the other singles from this album, being altogether a subtler entity, as such initially easier to overlook. Ultimately, however, it shines bright as day, leaving the listener with a lighter heart and a lighter step in his shoes. Which is very nice of Robert.

This is well-placed on the double. I've replicated the effect with a different song, leaving this a bit homeless. Ultimately, my side two is two fast songs and three slower ones, in that order, so I use this to 'bridge' the two, as the second track of the side.

Torture: lose

I suppose this is an attempt at being 'anthemic' - big 1980s stadium drums, a rah-rah chorus. It actually sounds very much like U2, if Bono was whiney instead of groany. And if U2 put glacial synths and artificial brass in their songs. This song isn't actually torture (it's asking it titling a song that, right?) but it's nothing to write home about, either. We don't look to the Cure for our stadium anthems, do we?

If Only Tonight We Could Sleep: keep (side two, track five)

When I was a kid listening to this album, I guess I thought this was 'psychedelic'. It is, I suppose, in its own thoroughly 1980s way. I also thought in some way it evoked the Middle East or South Asia, places that I knew nothing about but that intrigued me. Snake-charmer music. And I probably thought it was a real sitar, as opposed to whatever studio-processed thing it is. Anyway, real or not, the song creates an atmosphere that is quite beguiling, taking its own damn time to go nowhere special. It's not much of a song, but it's an interesting mood. And those are hard to come by.

I really didn't know where to put this song until I stumbled across the idea of ending the disc with it, and then it made perfect sense. They say an album-closer should either 'sum up' what you as an artist to or point a bold way forward. "Fight" does neither, but this does the latter. Doesn't it?

Why Can't I Be You?: keep (side one, track four)

The main thing that allowed post-goth moper Robert Smith to become something approaching a pop star was, more than a pop sense or a pop ethic and certainly more than an ability to be joyful or cathartic, an ability to be playful. It's the sense of a middle-class shut-in putting on goofy clothes and dancing in front of a mirror that gives songs like "The Lovecats", "Lovesong" or this one their value. You might want to smack Robert Smith here, but at the same time you have to suppress a sympathetic smile in the process. This is silly, infantile nonsense - yet it's great fun, and it's no surprise that it's become a concert mainstay: while Robert Smith lacks the empathy and universality to create true collective-consciousness pop experiences, he can project his ultimately asocial image onto each and every individual concertgoer, transforming a stadium full of smeared-lipstick and dyed-hair disaffected teenagers into geeks spaz-dancing in front of mirrors. And that's an impressive trick that few people can pull off.

Not much can follow this song, really. I thought it made the most sense to finish off a side with it, so it's the end of side one.

How Beautiful You Are...: keep (side one, track three)

This one is a strange one. Musically, it's right there in the idiom of 'classic Cure', a beautiful melody atop a thick, lush carpet of a backdrop. The words attempt to tell a story, or at least to recount an emotional recollection of a particular situation. The song is quite good, good enough to merit inclusion. It's a good listen, but it aims for greatness and falls short. Something about the song is unlovable, really. It leaves a taste in my mouth that, while not quite bitter, sure falls short of the feast it could have been. Call it karma, I suppose, but it's tough to love a song that talks about hating.

The specific sonics of this track reminded me of "Just Like Heaven". So initially it didn't make much sense to track them side-by-side, but the fact is that they very simply sound good in rapid succession like that, so there you have it: side one, track three.

The Snakepit: lose

This is seven minutes long, but it feels positively interminable. If it slithered like a snake, at least that'd be something. But as it is, it merely lumbers like a tortoise: like an old, drugged tortoise. There's no development at all here: Verses? Chorus? None to be heard. A few 'exotic' sounds are tossed into the guitar-heavy mix, but it signifies nothing. Certainly nothing worth seven minutes of your time.

Hey You!: lose

For some reason, without the technology seemingly changing at all, as the 1980s became the 1990s, the length of a CD expanded a little bit from a rigid 74 minutes to about 80 or so. A few albums fell into the gap between 74 and 80 and, where today they merrily fit on a single CD, at their time of release they couldn't. This was one (by only a few seconds, in fact), and given the choice between releasing it as two CDs or trimming it down to size, the Cure's record companies chose the latter, axing this particular little ditty. And it's no surprise they chose this one, really: it's barely even a song, just an excuse to use brass instruments in an embarrassing attempt as party-down 'fun'. And what does it mean to 'look like Christmas' anyway?

Just Like Heaven: keep (side one, track two)

If there is a God, and if God composes songs, they probably sound like this. I'm at a loss right now because there aren't really any words to describe how absolutely fabulous this song is, the best one Robert Smith ever wrote and ever will and one of the very best anyone has ever written. The instruments that come in one at a time, the strummed hemidemisemiquavers, the noodling lead guitar line, those glacial keyboard chords, and that whining little voice... they're all familiar elements, but it comes together with a unity and a completeness that... well that would almost make a believer out of me.

The double follows up "The Kiss" with "Catch" as a palate-cleanser. I like that idea, but why not put your best foot forward? Clearly on the double this has been held off to start the second record in order to give that second piece of vinyl a bit of weight. Not needing that here, let's put it first of all, barring that six-minute 'intro'. So side one, track two it is, then.

All I Want: lose

Pretty nondescript by-the-numbers stuff here, neither horrid nor embarrassing, but just seemingly knocked-off filler. I mean, did Robert Smith write this and say, 'Yeah! This'll be the big one!' or did he say, 'Well, there's another one done and dusted'? Also, disappointingly, all Mr Smith wants is to hold you like a doll. I always thought it was 'hold you like a dog', which is at least interesting.

Hot Hot Hot!!!: keep (side two, track one)

This is the song that indicates probably the end-point of how far away from their core sound the Cure are willing to go and how far most Cure fans are willing to accommodate that. I say 'most' because for some Cure fans this is simply a bridge too far, and there is a segment of Robert Smith's audience that deplores this song. For my part, I acknowledge that it's a hell of a risk, but overall I give Mr. Smith a passing grade, and not just for effort. This is a pretty well-constructed attempt at funk, driven entirely by its bassline. In all likelihood, this song would have floundered if it weren't for that bassline, actually, but it brings a confident self-assurance to Smith's efforts to get throaty-groovy. The composition itself is decent too, a bouncy take on, well, seemingly on the topic of lightning. At the end of the day, though, what matters is the sound. It was a hell of a risk, and congratulations to Smith et al not only for giving it a try but for pulling it off.

The way this song sticks out, it's tough to sequence it in the middle of other Cure songs. And so I've gone with the logic of letting it really stick out by having it introduce side two. It's an attention-grabbing way to get the second half up and running. Or, alternately, if you listen without interruption, it's the second of two brash pop songs in a 'brash pop song' suite. It fits either way.

One More Time: keep (side two, track three)

Progress through the album gets extremely sluggish from this point on, as the collection is so very front-loaded that the final third of the whole thing drags by with nary a single attention-grabber in the bunch. I suspect that since the first half is so very disparate, and at times stretching the limits of what 'the Cure' are, that a little homogeneity was introduced in the second half to appease the diehards. But at tempos like this, you can't even tread water; you'll just sink. This particular song, though, is pretty enough, provided you keep the volume down low enough that those 'chiming' midrange guitars don't scrape holes in your eardrums. It aims for 'majestic' but really only manages 'dreamy' - but that's still good enough, really. It's slow and deliberate, a Sunday morning song. Robert starts to shout a little, but really only because no-one's paying him any attention.

While I attempted to sequence my single-length preserving the sense of hop-and-jump stylistic diversity of the double, through no fault of my own it didn't turn out that way at all. So my single-length kind of works on 'blocks' of mood-related songs. And this starts of the 'austere' segment of three songs that closes the record on I guess a sombre tone. Side two track three is the weakest point of a record, but here it's like the beginning of a closing 'suite'.

Like Cockatoos: lose

Why the avian title but the aquatic mood? Anyway, mood is really all this is - an intriguing acoustic percussive groove. It does intrigue, but it goes nowhere. And Robert forgot to write a song to go with the riff.

Icing Sugar: lose

Rolling drums and unpleasant saxophone. This would be undemanding even as a b-side. Hell, it wouldn't impress as the 'bonus track' that they used to put on the 12" to get fans to buy both single formats. That's how essential this song is. Oh, and by 2:13 into the song, by which point people have stopped paying attention, it occurs to Robert to start singing.

The Perfect Girl: lose

If someone offered you a handsome sum of money to produce a dozen songs that sounded like the Cure and gave you only 48 hours to accomplish it, you'd wind up producing a lot of stuff exactly like this. Objectively, there's nothing I can point to as being bad in this song, and it even tries its hand at a catchy riff. But there's nothing to make it stand out, either. This is the façade of a nice building, not the building itself. It's an empty shell. And that's precisely what makes the second disc of this album such slow-going: it's ultimately a ghost town, a Hollywood set after the shooting's finished. It's little more than mere appearances.

A Thousand Hours: keep (side two, track four)

I wonder if this was an outtake from an earlier era of the Cure or if it was just a deliberate look back at that era. Either way, this is a Faith-style ice castle: detuned drums thudding beneath a noodling guitar-and-synth duet. Just as rote as any of its immediate neighbours, but ultimately there's a little depth to it, or at least the appearance of depth.

Makes sense to keep this late in the sequence. It's a 'late in the sequence' kind of song. Of the final three songs, two have stark instrumentation and one is really saturated. Since stark-saturated-stark didn't make any sense whatsoever, I went with saturated-stark-stark, leaving this to be the middle track of the suite, side two track four.

Shiver and Shake: lose

Apparently this song is dedicated to band member Lol Tolhurst, who might have an awesome internet acronym for a name (his brother's name is Wtf) but spent the 80s regressing from contributing band member to drug-addicted waste of space. While some people might look at a fellow band member struggling with addiction and see an opportunity to help, Robert appears to see it as an opportunity to write a petty screed of a song, shouting all manner of abuse at a guy who technically was still in the band at the time. Lovely. Oh, incidentally, it's a horrible song.

Fight: lose

This is the way the album ends, not with a bang. Not with a whimper, which would have been all right, but with a repetitive riff-and-cheesy-drums non-entity. What's most noteworthy about this song is how entirely unnoteworthy it is, bringing this meandering album to a conclusion on the unmistakeable sense that it realyl should have finished some fifteen minutes ago. Fight, fight, fight, Robert squeaks, entirely unconvincingly. Was this meant to be inspiring? It isn't. It isn't anything at all.


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