The Cure's Eternal Return

A fitting epitaph?

We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener. — Samuel Beckett.

Unlike his British post-punk contemporaries New Order, who underwent a similar career transformation when they went from alternative existentialist doomsters to chart-topping pop purveyors, the Cure's Robert Smith has never seemed quite at home in the world of bright lights: The dark has always seemed his natural domain. For his longtime fans, occasional bleak blasts on Cure albums such as Disintegration (1989) and the scorching live set Paris (1993) seemed to suggest that someday, Smith might very well return to the turbulent psychic terrain he'd mined out on classic early-'80s albums such as Faith and Pornography.

That hope is finally fulfilled on Bloodflowers, a work remarkable both for its unflinchingly honest lyrical examination of the Cure leader's life beyond the superficial level of pop celebrity, as well as for its wholesale rejection of pop musical trends. This is classic Cure music, straight up (or should that be straight down?): lengthy songs (most more than five minutes) with plenty of cold, alternately chiming and grinding guitars, fluttering keyboards and, of course, Smith's mournful yowl, which hasn't sounded this intense since the The Top's "Shake Dog Shake" in 1984.

Thematically, Bloodflowers finds Smith ruminating on the form of spiritual degeneration caused by material comfort and routine as one ages — and on the havoc that can be wrought when one tries to break free of the psychic ties that bind to recapture that original spark. On the epic "Watching Me Fall" (RealAudio excerpt), the ravaged singer attempts to revive his flagging libido in an encounter with a Japanese prostitute, yet he ends up disassociated, outside his body, watching the action as an observer. "I've been seeing them strip to the bone in the mirror on the wall/ Seeing her swallow him whole like it's not me at all," Smith howls amid a barrage of screaming guitars, desperately groping for meaning in a world he fears to be ultimately meaningless.

"The Loudest Sound" (RealAudio

excerpt) is a portrait of a married couple whose (over)familiarity with each other has led to stasis and emotional aridity: "Side by side in silence they pass 'way the day/ So comfortable, so habitual and so nothing left to say," Smith sings over ringing music that recalls Faith-era Cure's narcotic melancholy. "39" confronts the ennui brought about by age and dissipation ("I used to feed the fire/ But now the fire is almost out") with fearsomely rocking music that belies the song's sentiments. Meanwhile, the title track (RealAudio excerpt) stands as one of the band's greatest. Buttressed by phased, cascading drums and lethal bursts of goosebump-raising guitar, Smith's vocals cut like a knife as he delineates a blunt perspective that prevents him from believing his lover's romantic proclamations: "Between you and me, it's hard to ever really know who to trust ...You give me flowers of love ... I let fall flowers of blood," he cries. The song ends with the overwrought singer gasping in anguish.

If, as has been rumored, that recorded gasp is to be the last one from Robert Smith and the Cure, Bloodflowers is indeed a fitting epitaph.