2008 has been a surprising year. From Brian Wilson’s unlikely triumph with That Lucky Old Sun, to Metallica’s screaming comeback Death Magnetic, to Portishead’s left-field Third and Ben Folds’ first disappointment, Way to Normal, this year’s been hard to predict. Hell, Keane even went all ‘80s on us, and still blew me away.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of my year has been just how much I like 4:13 Dream, the new album from the Cure.
I was all set to hate this thing. I’d been steeling myself up for it for months. I felt pretty certain that this record was going to be awful, given Robert Smith’s recent track record, and unlike normal people, I couldn’t just not buy it. I had to hear it for myself, and own it, and file it with my collection, so I could point it out to people and say, “And here’s another terrible late-period Cure album.”
Now, it’s no exaggeration to say that without the Cure to get me through some rough patches in high school, I probably wouldn’t be here. While I like their poppier material well enough, like the upbeat stuff on Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, it’s the dark corners of their catalog, like Pornography and Disintegration, that I love most. No one does romantic depression like Robert Smith, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve agreed with the South Park kids, who once proclaimed, “Disintegration is the best album ever!”
But after that masterpiece, it’s been one downward spiral after another. Wish was decent enough, but Wild Mood Swings made me want to die, and not in that good Cure-like way. Bloodflowers ended the trilogy of Pornography and Disintegration with a resigned whimper, and 2004’s self-titled effort was the absolute nadir, a tuneless, screeching caterwaul that droned on and on, endless and without destination. It was an album that had next to nothing in common with the Cure that I’ve loved since junior high.
Fast-forward to 2008. The Cure’s 13th album was originally intended as a double, a mixture of pop tracks and dark epics, but of course, the record company intervened, and Smith cut it up into two releases. As soon as he announced that the first of these would be the “pop” record, I sighed and hung my head. Here comes another Wild Mood Swings, I thought to myself. I will just have to grit my teeth and bear it, hoping that the “dark” record is better.
Miracle of miracles, though, 4:13 Dream is my favorite Cure disc since Wish, 16 years ago.
Okay, let’s say this right off the bat – this is definitely the pop album. It opens with the same sprinkle of chimes that kicked off “Pictures of You,” and leadoff track “Underneath the Stars” is a glorious six-minute downer, doused in reverb and echo. But don’t believe it, because from there, this album is all upbeat melodic rock songs. If you heard the four singles, released one a month in anticipation of this album, you know what I mean – they are punchy, short, romantic and tuneful, and they set the tone.
Thankfully, these aren’t the fluffy ditties that so plagued Wild Mood Swings. These songs are sharp, tight, and full of melody. “The Only One” is the closest to hit-single territory, with its “Oh, I love what you do to my head” refrain. But listen to it – Smith has pared the band down to a quartet, and they sound like the Cure again. The guitar chimes and rings, instead of just spitting noise. Smith’s voice is back on form, putting the imitators to shame once again. This song could fit on Kiss Me without any trouble.
And it just gets better from there. Every time you think this album’s about to go off the rails – the laughable “You have what I want” intro to “The Real Snow White,” for example – Smith saves it with his best songwriting in ages. “The Reasons Why” opens with a classic Cure line – “I won’t try to bring you down about my suicide” – but it doesn’t rest on it. The chorus is mesmerizing, Smith reaching for higher and higher notes, and the guitar is so Cure, it’s like a warm blanket.
I ended up liking every song here, even ones like “Switch” and “This. Here and Now. With You” that start off wobbling. The album crashes to a close with “It’s Over,” the loudest thing here, but even that doesn’t collapse into the formless noise of the self-titled album – it’s controlled chaos. None of this is Happy Pills Robert Smith. It’s all dark, somewhat sinister pop music, and it’s worth noting that the Cure started out with material much like this, before diving into much murkier waters.
4:13 Dream effectively halts the backslide the Cure has been on for more than a decade, and finds the band reinvigorated. Listening to this, I feel 16 years old again, and I envy the younger generation – this is an album that will make kids fall in love with the Cure, just like I did when I was their age. 4:13 Dream is, quite simply, the best thing the Cure has done since I was in high school, and I’m amazed and thrilled that Smith and his band pulled it off. Now I’m even more excited for the “dark” album. Bring it on, boys.
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On the other hand, there is The Cosmos Rocks, by Queen and Paul Rodgers.
I’m going to try not to swear while writing this review, but it will be hard. Queen was another of my favorite bands growing up. Freddie Mercury was my musical idol – he was a fantastic piano player, and he could sing anything. Literally, anything. Queen was one of the most diverse bands of their time, tackling big ol’ rock songs alongside orchestrated balladry, opera, folk music, sea shanties, blues, synth-pop, Elvis tributes, Middle Eastern music and even white-boy rap. Everything they did was produced with such an over-the-top flair that it nearly masked the sheer musicality of their work. Queen songs are hard to play – I stumped a guy at a piano bar once by requesting “Killer Queen.”
When Mercury died in 1992, I was a senior in high school. It was a tough moment for 17-year-old me: Mercury was not only the first major rock star to succumb to AIDS at an early age, he was the first musician in my personal pantheon to pass on during my lifetime. I wrote an epic tribute song, I cried my little eyes out. I can laugh about my reaction now, but his music meant a lot to me, and I felt his loss. Queen managed one more album, mainly recorded while Mercury was alive, and it was good – Made in Heaven capped off the catalog pretty well, I thought, and the band did Mercury proud by finishing it off gracefully.
And then… well. Brian May and Roger Taylor hooked up with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, and took a greatest hits show out on the road. I can only guess at their reasons for doing this, but it smells of money. Worse, though, they called the act Queen and Paul Rodgers, despite the fact that only one-half of Queen was present. (God bless John Deacon for having no part of this fiasco.) Inevitably, this lineup has made a studio album – perhaps the tax bills are due, or something – and again, they’ve used the Queen name to try to sell it.
Let’s get this out of the way. This album is pretty bad, but I wouldn’t mind it as much if they hadn’t used the Queen name. Any combination of May, Rodgers and Taylor would do for me. If they’d come up with another name for the band, that would have been fine too. But calling it Queen without Mercury is just crass, and it strikes me as wrong. I’m uncomfortable even owning this disc – I feel like Freddie’s watching me, disapprovingly. This just isn’t Queen, and it shouldn’t be called Queen.
Regardless of what it’s called, The Cosmos Rocks is awful. Brian May is one of my favorite guitarists, particularly when he layers note after note on top of one another, creating celestial choirs with his six-string. But on his solo albums, May has exhibited a dispiriting tendency towards faceless rock. That tendency is taken to its limit on The Cosmos Rocks, as May tones down his own ambitious side to match the meat-and-potatoes voice of his new frontman.
The result is pretty boring, when it’s not laughably stupid. I really don’t even want to talk about individual songs, because there are two kinds here: tolerable lunkheaded rockers, and unlistenable lunkheaded rockers. You won’t believe “Cosmos Rockin’.” If you thought “Fat Bottomed Girls” was idiotic, then this one slips into Spinal Tap territory. “We got the cosmos rockin’ to the mighty power of rock ‘n’ roll!” Um, okay.
The “mighty power of rock ‘n’ roll” is a recurring theme, but alas, not the only one. Rodgers tries to go deep, singing about the state of the world on such unintentionally hysterical “epics” as “We Believe” and “Say It’s Not True.” The only songs I like here are the tossed-off ditty “Call Me” – that one sounds like Mercury might have had fun with it – and “Through the Night,” the only minor-key “serious” song that works. Everything else is a travesty. Seriously, just read the lyrics to “Warboys.” I rest my case.
Tragically, May turns out some interesting leads here, especially on “Voodoo,” which really sounds like Bad Company. He elevates “C-Lebrity” beyond what it deserves, and adds verve to the irredeemably dumb “Surf’s Up… School’s Out.” Yes, that’s really the title. But this is a record any middling rock band could have made, and it’s quite undeserving of its pedigree. I’ve made it all the way through “Some Things That Glitter” twice now, and had to stifle the gag reflex both times.
The sad truth is that if The Cosmos Rocks didn’t have the word Queen on the cover, I wouldn’t have bought it, and neither would most people. Using the name is just a money-grabbing gambit, and a shameful one. But it wouldn’t have stung quite as badly if the album itself had lived up to the legacy. It’s impossible without Mercury, of course, but May, Rodgers and Taylor could have tried harder than this. The Cosmos Rocks does very little to justify its own existence, and it just sits there like a tapeworm, eating away at the Queen legacy bit by bit.
Ah, fuck not swearing. This album is fucking terrible.
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And right in the middle, there’s Ryan Adams.
Once the unpredictable bad boy of modern country-rock, Adams has lately settled down into a mid-life, mid-tempo groove. His new band, the Cardinals, is fantastic, but with them, Adams seems more reserved, more constrained than ever before. His last full-lengther, Easy Tiger, was mellow and simple. It contained the same Ryan Adams flair for sweet melodies and pedal-steel weepers, but it felt slight, like it was knocked out in a weekend.
Now here’s Cardinology, another 12-song album with the Cardinals, and I feel exactly the same way about this one. It’s a dozen pretty good songs on a slab of plastic, lasting a grand total of 40 minutes, and it feels like Adams just had these tunes lying around, and booked two or three days of studio time to kick them out. There’s nothing bad on Cardinology, but there’s nothing particularly good on it, either.
The first half, in fact, is almost boring. I like the immediate shock of “Magick,” and the Morrissey imitation Adams whips out on “Cobwebs,” but I don’t even remember “Go Easy,” and I find the lazy lope of “Let Us Down Easy” a bit too simple. Adams’ voice is in fine form, and the band sounds fantastic as usual, particularly guitarist Neal Casal. But it feels rote, like I’ve heard it all before.
The second half is much better. “Crossed Out Name” is a naked, acoustic plea with a great melody, and it’s just right at 2:44. “Natural Ghost” is a perfect Cardinals track, all steel guitars and harmonies, while “Sink Ships” is my favorite thing here, an airy folk song that taps into the best qualities of Adams’ writing. Closer “Stop” is a piano-vocal piece full of emotion, and it ends the album on a downbeat, but perfect note. The other instruments on “Stop” are so subtle that you barely notice them.
Still, very few of these songs are up to the standard Adams set on Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, and the whole thing plays like a minor entry in his catalog – just another Ryan Adams album. I’m not sure what he needs to do to shake things up. In fact, I’m not sure he really needs to do anything. Adams seems content to keep on ambling down this road, and I can’t say I’d mind hearing an album like this once a year from him. But Adams albums used to be events – remember the flap over Love is Hell? I doubt Cardinology will spark the same discussions that Gold and Heartbreaker did. It’s just not as big a deal.
Adams seems settled, almost happy on this album, and while that’s not a bad thing, it isn’t quite as interesting. Cardinology is 12 pretty good songs, played well by a terrific band. And that’s all. If that’s all you need, you’ll love it. Me, I’m hoping he does something unexpected next time out. Cardinology isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite satisfy.
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Next week, Travis, Of Montreal and Snow Patrol, I think.
See you in line Tuesday morning.