Like a good chunk of the American population, I have been watching Jeopardy lately.
I have come to the conclusion that either a) this game is rigged, Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show style, or b) Ken Jennings, software engineer from Salt Lake City, Utah, knows damn near everything. He’s become cockier as the show has gone on, though, and he’s made a couple of mistakes, which means that either he’s a very good actor, or the show is genuine. My bet is that Jennings’ brain is a storehouse of random knowledge – he seems to know quite a lot about an impressively broad range of subjects. Anyway, it’s been fun watching him, and I can’t wait to see how he eventually loses.
I have also been checking out VH1’s I Love the ‘90s this week, which is equal parts funny and sad. I’m big on recapturing lost youth, and on not growing up to any irreparable degree, so watching VH1’s panel of culture assayers explore and demolish years I vividly remember living through is an odd experience. It’s strange to think of 1994 as 10 years ago – I was a sophomore in college, and Pearl Jam was the biggest band on earth. This show is about how stupid pop culture is, and how much we adore it anyway, and in that it’s a smashing success. It just makes me feel old.
But maybe it’s not wise to revisit the past. Maybe one should grow up and leave childhood things behind. And maybe one should know when something, even something treasured, has run its course and should be gently laid to rest. Especially if, you know, you’ve already told everyone you’re going to stop reliving your glory years.
Tops on the list of people who should have stuck to that resolution is Robert Smith. Now, I believe I have mentioned my enduring love for the Cure, perhaps the most important band of my teen years. Disintegration remains in my pantheon, due in no small part to the bond I developed with it as a moody and suicidal teenager. Smith’s tortured, adolescent poetry spoke to my 15-year-old self like just about nothing before it had. I do, truth be told, know how teenaged fans of the new gloom-rock bands feel when they say they see themselves clearly in the lyrics.
There’s a difference, though – the Cure was good. Albums like Disintegration and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and The Head on the Door are still far better than the ones they’ve inspired from lesser bands. Smith’s textured guitar playing and mournful wailing remain unmatched in the underwhelming wilderness of gothic rock. Smith and company reached such a plateau with Disintegration in 1989, in fact, that it was supposed to be the Cure’s last.
Thus would begin a pattern – every time the Cure would release an album, Smith would call it their final one. Post-Disintegration, the ride has been… somewhat bumpier than before, to put it diplomatically. 1992’s Wish saddled its more epic tracks with half an hour of silly fluff, and 1996’s Wild Mood Swings gushed such effervescent drool that it was almost unlistenable. There were some good songs, but they were muffled and shoved into a corner by the endless loony party that poured out of Smith’s head.
And then came Bloodflowers in 2000. Billed as the final part of a trilogy that also included the Cure’s two best albums (Pornography and Disintegration), the album hearkened back to the wondrous Cure of old. Calling it the concluding chapter of a trilogy invites comparison to the first two installments, of course, but Bloodflowers lived up. Naturally, Smith announced it as the end, the last Cure album, but this time, it felt like he meant it. His playing and singing certainly added to that impression – the explosive climax of Bloodflowers sounds like Smith playing the last music he will ever play.
And I admit, listening to Bloodflowers I felt 15 again. No, that’s not quite right – I felt like a 26-year-old looking back fondly on 15, regardless of how miserable that time actually was. That album synthesized the essence of the Cure into a symphony of resignation and loss, and served as a perfect capper to the band’s career. It redeemed the two preceding albums all by itself, and it would have been an elegant, magnificent bow-out.
But dammit, Smith was lying again. Four years after the fourth or fifth final farewell, here comes the Cure, with a self-titled album and a host of new band members. This time, they’re aiming for a revival, looking to capitalize on the interest bands like Interpol have sent their way. So what did they do? They hooked up with Ross Robinson, the producer behind Korn and At the Drive-In, and they turned up the amps. And they had a toddler draw the album cover.
And they wrote a bunch of really crappy songs.
Robinson happily did not transform the Cure into Korn, but make no mistake, this is the heaviest-sounding Cure album ever. Problem is, they seem satisfied with heavy. Most of these 11 songs are dirges, with two or three notes repeated endlessly, and just about none of the haunting, enchanting guitar of old. Smith just made pretty noise come out of his amp and called it good. Opener “Lost” begins with Smith moaning “I can’t find myself,” and the repetitive three-chord mess that follows backs his statement up. He sounds lost, and his band is just wandering around, looking for a reason to still exist.
Robinson’s great triumph and tragedy on this record is Smith himself. His vocals are mixed loud, clear and center, and Smith howls and screeches and yelps and sometimes even sings with a passion he hasn’t shown in years. He was obviously encouraged to let it all hang out here, but what hangs out is often embarrassing. Occasionally, he turns in a performance that defines him, like the one on “Labyrinth,” but more often than not, he sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody of Robert Smith. The most egregious is “Us or Them,” which finds Smith trying to sell the line “I don’t want you anywhere near me” and ending up sounding like some kind of mental defective.
The Cure is not a complete disaster, like Wild Mood Swings was. “Before Three” is a winner, with its ascending melody, and “Taking Off” is one of the few songs here that does, even though it ends with perhaps the most cringe-worthy vocal warble here. “Anniversary” is also a deep and textured piece, even though it’s not quite as deep or textured as the classic sound it emulates. But for every moment of clarity, there’s at least one blinding display of bad judgment. The album concludes with its worst idea, a 10-minute snoozer called “The Promise” that trudges on under oppressive waves of distortion and Smith’s unhinged caterwauling.
Between self-titling the record, enlisting Robinson and bringing the loud, it’s evident that the Cure is trying to sound young and modern here. This album is the antithesis of Bloodflowers – where that album portrayed an aging Smith finally accepting that his life will never be what it could have been, The Cure shows off a still-aging Smith turning his back on those graceful conclusions, and lunging for a brass ring that is out of his reach. Unsurprisingly, this is the first Cure album in 15 years that has not been touted as the band’s finale.
There are things about this rebirth that I admire, and songs here that I like, but this album’s very existence sullies Bloodflowers, and its content does not justify that. It’s obvious now that Smith is just going to run this train into the ground, and if he ever produces anything as beautiful and heartbreaking as his fabled Trilogy again, I will be stunned. Happy, blissfully happy, yes, but stunned. The Cure is a lousy attempt at updating a sound that didn’t need updating, and a shabby appendix to a terrific final chapter. The album’s finale revolves around the line, “You promised me,” and I can’t help thinking back to 2000, and 1996, and 1992, and 1989, and muttering, “Robert, you promised me…”
* * * * *
Speaking of shabby appendices and broken promises, there is the latest (and reportedly last) Phish album, Undermind, to discuss. Phish will always be to me the sound of freshman year in college. I bought A Picture of Nectar first, was dazzled, and immediately snatched up Junta, Lawn Boy and Rift. Here was a band with serious chops, unbelievable musicianship and a twin sense of fun and adventure. Part Grateful Dead, part Frank Zappa, and part ‘70s prog rock, Phish was one of a kind at the time, and naturally I thought the ride was just beginning.
Rift, of course, was the beginning of the end, but it was a slow, protracted end for a band that should have been mercifully put down years ago. Why do I say this, knowing that legions of Phish-heads will email me with peaceful, loving death threats? Because it’s true – while Phish still put on a great live show in its waning years, the band’s studio output has been in sharp decline since Hoist, and we’ve finally reached the bottom.
Phish is a band that can play rings around just about anyone else on the concert circuit, but for the last 10 years of studio albums, they’ve purposefully decided not to. Bands often do this – they will strip away all the excess, cutting their sound back to the basics so they can recapture the magic and build back up again in a different direction. Phish has just never rebuilt the sound. They started embracing stupefying simplicity on 1994’s Hoist, and just ran with it, writing and playing songs so beneath them that it was laughable.
I thought they had it on Farmhouse, their 2000 album of small yet winning tunes. They finally sounded like they’d accomplished what they were after with the shift toward three-chord funk-rock, and a rebirth seemed around the corner. And then they broke up. Or rather, went on an extended hiatus, but in the music world, it’s almost the same thing. Still and all, going out with Farmhouse wouldn’t have been all that bad.
But no, they had to reunite and foist two lousy records on the public before breaking up again, this time presumably for good. They slammed through 2002’s Round Room in a week, and it sounded like it – uninspired jams sat next to uninspiring banalitites, and it dragged on and on. And now here is Undermind, which recaptures the focus of Farmhouse but does away with anything one might term musically interesting. Honestly, listening to Phish breeze through boring slabs of blah like “Two Versions of Me” is like hearing Zappa’s amazing 1988 band cover the Eagles. It’s a perfect example of wasted talent, and the snoozers come one after another on this sad little disc.
There are two highlights, and they are the only two things worth revisiting on this record. The first is “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,” the one nod to the band’s instrumental interplay, but this moody beast is sullied by a chorus that calls to mind Salt n Pepa’s “Whatta Man.” Seriously. And then there’s “Secret Smile,” the best song on the disc, which soars on a sweet string arrangement. Its mournful tone is almost an elegy for the band itself. It would have been a nice way to end the record, but naturally they killed it with the brief and silly “Grind.”
Undermind comes with a short film on DVD that depicts the band running through 30-some takes of “Crowd Control,” one of the simpler songs, and believe it or not, by the 15th take or so, they’re playing it with their eyes closed. Honestly, after only one or two listens, I could play this song with my eyes closed, too. So what’s the point of recording it, then? The songs on Undermind denote a ridiculous lack of effort, both in composition and performance, and they’re a pathetic way for such a great band to leave the stage.
In truth, it seems that Phish has been breaking up for 10 years now. Their albums have grown progressively worse as the members’ solo projects have grown progressively better – Trey Anastasio’s solo band outpaces current Phish by miles, and Page McConnell’s Vida Blue is one hell of a jazz outfit. It’s definitely time to put Phish to bed, and in fact it would have been better all around if they’d realized it during the hiatus. True, we wouldn’t have seen one of the best touring bands on earth make the rounds one last time, but we wouldn’t have had to suffer through Round Room and Undermind, either.
So goodnight, Phish. Ten years ago it might have been sad, but after years of you limping about, coughing and hacking, well, it’s a blessing. Like another recently deceased performer who wasted his talent on material that didn’t deserve him once said, you coulda been a contender.
See you in line Tuesday morning.