Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Curioser and Curioser: The Essay


CURIOSER AND CURIOSER: THE CURE AND THEIR ARTISTIC SIBLINGS
by Alison Ross

All art is linked: literature finds its fraternal twins in music and visual arts, and film manages to meld all three into a seamless whole. For me, the Cure has certain spiritual siblings, if you will, in the literary and visual art worlds. For me, The Cure is the musical personification of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Rimbaud, Dr. Seuss, Alice in Wonderland (the book and Disney movie), Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, Edvard Munch, and Francisco Goya. The idea I’m striving for is to create a kind of artistically synthaesthetic portrait of The Cure.

ART

Spanish artist Joan Miro is the visual artist whose work I think most closely resembles the Cure’s pop music. His paintings have a whimsical, childlike style, yet there is a maze-like complexity that lurks beneath their simple facade. A lot of Cure pop music is also deceptively simple, boasting a childlike joviality. Yet, underneath it all is an intelligent design - an accomplished musical sense that is decidedly un-childlike. A Miro painting like “People and Dog in Sun” is paradoxically both impetuously childlike yet intensely intricate. That’s how I see a lot of Cure pop songs, such as “Why Can’t I Be You,” “Inbetween Days,” ‘Close to Me,” “Like Cockatoos,” “Let’s Go to Bed,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Caterpillar,” “High,” “Friday I’m in Love,” “The End of the World” and “(I Don’t Know What’s Going) On.” Other Miro paintings that capture quaint Cure-pop quirkiness include, “A Smile of the Flamboyant Wings,” “Pintura,” and “Red Sun.”

On the other hand, Miro can also resemble more melodic, softer Cure fare. Paintings like “Bleu I, II, and II,” are less intricate and more abstract pieces, and contain a soothing spaciousness, not unlike some Cure songs from the albums “Seventeen Seconds” or “Faith.”

The Cure’s lyrics and playfully offbeat pop music - the piano tinklings, swirling synthesizers, chiming guitars, Smith’s boyish howl - also evoke Miro colors and images - stark reds and blues, and whimsical faces and shapes. The manically dark art of Francisco Goya’s Black Period finds its musical parallel, I think, in the Cure’s darkest work: “Pornography,” “Bloodflowers,” and bits of “Faith.” The psychedelic song “Bloodflowers,” in particular, is evocative of Goya’s brooding colors and eerie subject matter. The song lyrics are rather existential, recalling a Goya piece like “Old Men Eating” whose subject matter - two old men, one in a state of decay and one clearly already a corpse, with hollowed out eyes - parallels the song idea of the inevitable, if sometimes horrific, transience of life. The song also acts as dialogue between two people, one who negates life’s transience, and one who affirms it. The withered old man in Goya’s piece could be the person who negates it, while the corpse figure could represent the one who affirms it. The painting also features dim, earthy colors, reminding us of the dirt and flesh intrinsic to the Cure song title.

“Watching Me Fall” is another intensely dark Cure song from “Bloodflowers” that calls forth nightmare landscapes the likes of which Goya might paint. The Middle Eastern psychedelia of “Labyrinth” (from the Cure’s eponymous album), also evokes a Goyan anguish.

And on “Pornography,” nearly all the songs are like Goya’s paintings from his Black Period. A piece like “The 3rd of May 1808” acts as a nice visual partner to the political terror screaming out of “100 Years,” and “Old Men” eerily echoes “A Strange Day,” with the old, seemingly blind man and a haunting figure creeping closely behind him. “Goat” and “Saturn Devouring His Children” are additional Goya paintings that are easily paired with the horror-laden “Poronography” songs.

Some Cure songs also evoke scenes much like Edvard Munch paintings, with their thick, colorful swirls that highlight repressed agony. The infamous “Scream,” whose central character releases a silent howl of unbearable intensity, could be linked to many “ominously” melancholic Cure songs, especially some on “Disintegration,” such as “Plainsong,” “Prayers For Rain,” and “Same Deep Water as You,” as well as “The Loudest Sound,” from “Bloodflowers” and “Going Nowhere” and “This Morning” from The Cure’s self-titled effort.

“Last Dance” of course, could find its artistic kin in Munch’s “The Dance of Life,” both for the thematic link as well as the colors that the song evokes. All the synthesizer-laden songs on “Disintegration,” indeed, evoke yellows and reds, colors that Munch seems fond of, and are tied lyrically to the desperate themes inherent in Munch’s work.

The lyrics and mood of “The Walk,” plus most of the songs from the bizarrely experimental “The Top” bring to mind the surrealism of Salvador Dali. “The Walk” contains lyrically odd juxtapositions and wildly hallucinatory imagery, just as Dali paintings seem to pull their juxtaposed antithetical objects and images straight from drug-induced dreams.

The lyrics and music from “The Empty World,” among others on “The Top,” are strongly evocative of imagery the likes of which Dali might paint. Dali’s “Woman With Drawers” could symbolize the unstable protagonist of “Birdmad Girl,” as both pieces possess a disturbingly wacky sense of reality.

Furthermore, Robert Smith’s crooning on most of “The Top” songs sounds as though he was attempting to achieve a “melting” singing style, which calls to mind Dali’s infamous melting clocks picture, “The Persistence of Memory.” Indeed, many Dali paintings would seem to be the visual manifestation of Smiths’ voice - landscapes of dreamy despair.

LITERATURE AND FILM

Lyrically, songs from “Pornography, “The Top” as well as scattered Cure songs on “Disintegration” and other albums resemble the abstract surrealistic style of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Indeed, Rimbaud himself felt that in order to reach one’s creative zenith, that person would need to indulge in a “total derangement of the senses.” Robert Smith seems to have done that during the recording sessions of “Pornography” with his infamous LSD binges. Rimbaud had a proclivity for crafting jolting juxtapositions that created startling imagery, as does Robert Smith.

The imagery that some Cure songs evoke is decidedly Edgar Allen Poe-esque, with their lyrical dwellings on wintry seasons and the sea. Poe, indeed, was obsessed with the sea, as Smith seems to be. Poe’s poetry is also suffused with themes of love and death, as many of Smith’s lyrics are. Songs such as “Pictures of You” inspire images of passion and death in snow-drenched surroundings.

Edgar Allen Poe also dealt extensively with the ideas of night, shadows, angels, the stars, and the moon in his poetry; Smith’s lyrics have a similar preoccupation with such symbolic imagery. Robert Smith’s voice is how I would imagine Edgar Allen Poe might sing - in a kind of haunting wail. And at times, the silly, faux-opera style that Robert invokes (“Why Can’t I Be You,” “End of the World,” “Taking Off,” “(I Don’t Know What’s Going) On,” others) reminds me of how a Dr. Seuss character would sing. As has been noted by other writers, his voice also has the uncanny ability to evoke seasonal moods, and I think it even has the ability to call forth imagery. For me, the texture of Smith’s tear-soaked voice calls to mind wintry landscapes and surrealistic impressions.

In the song “High,” from “Wish,” Robert Smith seems to be channeling the playful spirit of Dr. Seuss, as the song lyrics feature Seussian wordplay. In particular, Smith uses nouns as adjectives (“sky as a kite”) adjectives as nouns (“the how you move”), and nouns as verbs (“the way you fur”). Seuss was fond of these grammatical idosyncracies also; for example, he has a story whose title uses a verb as a noun - The Thinks you Can Think - and in Oh Say Can you Say, Seuss speaks of “the quacks Blue quacks,” using the first “quack” unusually as a noun and the second “quack” in its more ubiquitous usage, as a verb.

Also in “High,” Smith makes use of the absurd logic and nonsensical similes that that Seuss might use: “When I see you sticky as lips/as licky as tricks/I can’t lick that far.”

The Cure singles “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Friday in Love,” “Cut Here” and “Taking Off” and “(I Don’t Know What’s Going) On” also have Seussian similarities. In “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Taking Off,” and “(I Don’t Know What’s Going) On” the Seuss spirit is alive in the meter, childlike tone, and lryical execution. “Taking Off” contains examples of internal rhyme (“But tonight I climb with you / Tonight / So high with you / Tonight I shine with you/ Tonight / Oh I'm so alive with you” ) are similar to Seuss’s own rhyme scheme.

And “Friday I’m in Love” contains the meter and childike cataloging the likes of which Seuss might employ: “I don’t care if Monday’s blue/ Tuesday’s gray and Wednesday too/Thursday I don’t care about you/it’s Friday I’m in love,” and “Monday you can break my heart/Tuesday, Wednesday fall apart/Thursday doesn’t even start/it’s Friday I’m in Love.” Compare this to “Yes some are red/And some are blue/Some are old/And some are new,” from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish or “I do not like them in a house/I do not like them with a mouse/I do not like them here or there/I do not like them anywhere,” from Green Eggs and Ham.

In “Cut Here,” even though the lyrics focus on loss and the anger that trails that loss, the lines “Dizzy Mr. Busy/Fizzy” and “Silly Mr. Dilly” remind us of the Seussian invention of rhyming characters (Yertle the Turtle, Daisy-Head Maisey, etc.).

Smith’s singing on these singles sound like pre-pubescent warblings, sometimes even like the anguished yelps of small boys. This serves to further the Seussian parallels; young children’s tender voices often erupt from the pages of Seuss’s works.

The boyish, dreamy hand and facial gestures that Robert makes on stage and in videos remind me of Alice in Wonderland creatures, like the mischievous Cheshire Cat and his disappearing smile, or the characters at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Indeed, many Cure videos are a lot like the Disney movie of “Alice in Wonderland.” They have an inherent upside-down logic to them, their own absurdist sense. “The Caterpillar,” my favorite of all Cure videos, embodies Lewis Caroll-inspired imagery - the snaky caterpillar puppet at the beginning, the wobbly piano, the glimpses of butterflies fluttering around in a glass garden. Even Robert Smith’s make-up smeared visage, tumultuous, towering coif and sinuous dream-like movements call to mind Carroll’s “through the looking glass” world of misshapen logic. Smith seems like an otherworldly creature in this video, a not-quite human character out of some warped children’s book. In many of the Cure videos Smith assumes a comic book persona that is both joyously naive yet quaintly impish.

“The Love Cats,” “Why Can’t I Be You” and “Friday I’m in Love” videos are also parallel to the “Alice in Wonderland” movie, the first two with their slightly sinister playfulness, and the last one with its capricious, ever-changing backdrop and costumes.

Certainly a more exhaustive treatment of The Cure and their artistic kin could lend an even more dramatic understanding of how the band’s magical music manages to weave in the sensibilities of the visual and literary arts. The preceding can only scratch the surface of such intriguing analogues.

3 comments:

DJ scribbles said...

i dont have the vocabulary to fully describe your essay, so ill just say well done! ive thought about Poe and Dr. Seuss and how the cure relates. and now youve actually written about it! it was a great read :)

Maree said...

Nice read... I have often linked The Cure conceptually and aesthetically to various artists/thinkers/writers, and it's cool to see I am not alone in that. :^D

PJW said...

Hi Cat. Excellent essay. I agree with all that you say and would also add Bacon,Bosh,Turner and, for me, Rothko to the list of painters that have a "cureness" to them.
I am a painter and sculptor and the Cure are very much an influence on my work. I paint lush,abstacted painterly sunsets and starscapes and make mad, spiraling snake/tenticle/ root wood carvings,stone carvings and ceramics. Every work is accompanied in my mind by music, and the Cure are by far the main provider of this "mental soundtrack". For instance the music in particular of songs like Plainsong, Out of this world and A Strange Day inspire starscapes or starscape like abstract colour fields.This is why Underneath the stars is such a wonderful song. It moves me to tears every time I hear it;It is so utterly in that "starscape slot" for me!
Apologies for "going off on one" there! You just gave me an excuse to rabbit on about my two favourite subjects; art and The Cure! Thank you!
Paul