The Cure review – the doyens of doom

The Cure review – the doyens of doom

The Cure’s Robert Smith with guitar, light streaming down behind him, on stage in Leeds.

The Cure’s Robert Smith, ‘looking exactly like he has always looked’, on stage in Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

First Direct Arena, Leeds
A devoted multi-generational audience aren’t disappointed as Robert Smith and band double down on desolations old and new

Success wears an Eraserhead T-shirt and applies its makeup in the dark with a liberal hand. Many conventional metrics of accomplishment do not apply to the Cure, 44 years in the game and now at the tail-end of a 44-date European tour. Currently an independent unsigned band finalising the release of their 14th studio album, this is their first time in Leeds for a decade – or so reckons crimson-lipped, smudge-eyed singer Robert Smith, the man whose dreams, nightmares, hopelessly romantic nature and peculiarly perky take on nihilism power this British institution. Helipads, velvet ropes, Bond themes: none of these outward signs of validation hold sway in the Cure’s universe.

This is a band who seem to be having their cake and eating it with remarkably few concessions. The Cure have a finished product, their first album of new songs in 14 years to offer to a new label as-is – and a devoted multi-generational audience ready to buy it and fill arenas worldwide.

Has any musician ever felt more secure in their own art as Smith? Decades past any kind of performance anxiety, he chats amiably between his songs of deep alienation, looking exactly as he has always looked, the years adding only a faint air of Miss Havisham to his signature back-combed cobweb of hair. (Multi-instrumentalist Perry Bamonte, back in the fold again, also has an impressive salt-and-pepper candyfloss “do”.) Tonight, Smith has a cold, because someone sneezed on him in Glasgow, he says. But his instantly recognisable vocals remain strong, even under all the reverb.

Quiffed and stripped to a vest, Simon Gallup, the Cure’s other constant, still wears his bass round his ankles like Peter Hook. He climbs up on monitors, ends A Forest with a squall of noise and repeatedly offers his instrument up to the gods, the band member most responsible for showmanship.

You do wish some of this punk-era energy might rub off on the rest of the band. Smith and his revolving group of co-conspirators set up early in Leeds – 8.13 on a Tuesday night – to unfurl great swaths of their back catalogue. The set list is liberally peppered with new works destined for that forthcoming outing, Songs of a Lost World. It’s a “relentless” record Smith has been trailing since roughly 2018. There is one more in the can as well, he has said.

The pace is glacially unhurried, with most songs taking multiple bars of keyboard-and-guitar foreplay to get going. Since 2012, the Cure’s other guitarist has been Reeves Gabrels, for years a mainstay of David Bowie’s bands; sometimes, tonight, a total of three guitars (Smith, Gabrels and Bamonte) beefs out the band’s sound. Superfan Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai once told an interviewer that you needed “strong ankles” to last a Cure gig. But this is excellent fan servicing: long, mutable set lists, and tour T-shirts priced at £20.

The Cure’s regard for passing musical fashion – or what you might loosely call artistic progress – remains heroically scant too. At this juncture, no one is really expecting a Kid A-style swerve; Smith is not about to discover the harp. Rather, the six-piece double down on desolations old and new, with a pop greatest hits set in the second encore.

Smith and Simon Gallup of the Cure at the First Direct Arena, Leeds.
Smith and Simon Gallup of the Cure at the First Direct Arena, Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

But first: the news that everything must die, and that we all die alone. “This is the end of every song that we sing,” Smith declares on Alone, the very first track, flagging themes of despair, constancy and isolation that will echo down the set list. A brand new song that ramps up Smith’s signature mournfulness with what sounds like a farewell to all life as we know it, Alone is accompanied by a visual of planet Earth gradually falling away into the distance.

Soon after, some signature guitar tones and organ-like chords signal a shift into a more familiar starry-eyed melancholy, and one of the Cure’s most enduring love songs, Pictures of You. The band’s fluctuating set list has room for all shades of darkness tonight, from the magisterial, lysergic disgust of Shake Dog Shake to The Last Day of Summer, in which everything appears to be terrible and getting worse – and that was back in nice, safe, normal 2000, circa the Bloodflowers LP.

One of the longstanding enigmas central to the Cure’s canon has long been how a man happily married to his childhood sweetheart for so many years could be so riven with romantic angst. (To which the answer is always: we pay these people to be creative.) One of the new tracks the Cure play tonight is And Nothing Is Forever, whose ambivalent title disguises another heartfelt devotional to – presumably – Smith’s beloved.

Lately, it really seems as though loss and finality have been squarely targeting this bard of bleakness. In recent years, Smith has been through many bereavements – both his parents, his elder brother (a key early influence on the younger Smith) and, during Covid, a brace of aunts and uncles.

I Can Never Say Goodbye is explicitly about Smith’s brother, and skewering lyrics such as “I can’t break this dreamer’s sleep however hard I try” leaves the listener in no doubt that Songs of a Lost World will pack a payload of hurt. All these leave-takings have prompted fresh reckonings with despair, from an artist who, over the years, has often wondered in interviews – and, more tangentially, in lyrics – whether he had anything left to say. He has.

This article was amended on 10 December 2022. Reeves Gabrels joined the band in 2012, not 2021 as originally stated.

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