Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The 13th Scream by Cosmic Icons (The Cure CD Review) by Alison Ross

The 13th Scream by Cosmic Icons
by Alison Ross

The Cure's new album, 4:13 Dream, starts with a whisper and ends with a bang. The whisper, of course, is the lushly layered dirge, Underneath the Stars, which in devastatingly grandiose fashion invokes the sublime bliss of cosmic love married to the interlocked rhythms of the moon and the ocean. The bang, of course, is a manic psycho-billy freakout, It's Over, formerly and more evocatively named Baby Rag Dog Book. And in between these polaraized bookends are various shades of quiet utterances and mercurial mood-pieces.

The 4:13 of the title, of course, is anchored in the pragmatic – the band has whittled down to 4 members on this, their 13th album, and the 4:13 can harken back to 10:15 Saturday Night, one of the Cure's first singles. But the title has obvious temporal connotations as well. It recalls the eerie hours of the morning, when one might awaken in a chilled fever following an ominous nightmare or be lulled into a hazy reverie after a particularly cozy dream.

Some listeners and reviewers have found 4:13 Dream to be musically disjointed, but I find the collection to be rather pleasingly cohesive even within its daringly diverse range of styles. UTS flows sensually into TOO, a spry sparkling ode to the raunchy side of love. TOO slides into the bouyantly introspective The Reasons Why, which then bounces into the giddy, off-kilter Freakshow, a song that provides a burst of fierce, funky jubilation between that and the folksy, vaguely country Sirensong. Indeed, Sirensong is one of the more surprising cuts on the album, given Robert Smith's past slating of country music. The song utilizes a twangy slide guitar and alt.country-style lyrics and warblings to intriguing effect, evincing once again that Robert and gang are the most capable of genre-jumpers.

The Real Snow White is the only misplaced song in the entire effort, in my estimation. It's not glaringly out of place, but it doesn't really bring much to the table; it's rather deflated in mood and execution and lacks the palpable luster of the other songs. On the other hand, perhaps the song's sluggish grind has seductive appeal for some.

The Hungry Ghost revives the fluid feel, with its shimmering guitar line and achingly yearning vocals. Switch's injection of grit and spit propels the album toward its inevitable chaotic climax, but not before swooning right into The Perfect Boy, a gleaming pop piece with tinges of tearful longing. This song smoothes the way for the quirky love ditty, This. Here and Now. With You. Things get progressively more aggressive, as Sleep When I'm Dead's searing ethereal rocker tears into the sinister Scream. Indeed, The Scream is the apocalyptic lead-in to the implosive album-closer It's Over. Really, The Scream is most akin to songs from the Cure's landmark homage to nihilism, Pornography, but it also contains clues into the druggy pyschedelia of a Top song (it's as though Pornography and the Top married and had a child named Topography). The Scream, of course, is the aural partner to Edvard Munch's infamous swirling visuals and as such terrifically evokes the anguished howl unleashed after experiencing a sense of sinking existential dread.

Technically speaking, the album is tightly focused, with freakishly talented Porl Thompson's fancy fretwork providing a polished glimmer to the songs. Unlike its predecessor, the self-titled album, the production on 4:13 is less marred by murkiness and the vocals are more integrated into the music as opposed to lumped gratingly on top of it. However, there are still some issues as far as compression, and a sort of drowned-sound effect on songs like Underneath the Stars (although such an effect is mesmerizingly fitting for It's Over). But overall it's a much more palatably mixed effort, and brings out the latent shine of some of the songs like The Hungry Ghost and The Reasons Why.

Lyrically, Smith's words meld his patenteted poetic style with more stripped-down straightforward sensibilities that interweave intuitively with the music. Thematically, there is a palette of motifs: celebration of zenful romance (This. Here and Now. With You), Buddhist-inspired meanderings about our never-sated consumerist culture (The Hungry Ghost), philosophical forays into euthanasia (The Reasons Why), musings about the eternal love/lust struggle (The Perfect Boy), and solipsistic agonizing (Switch).

There is, lamentably, a cult of vicious naysayers who persistently claim that the Cure has had nothing fresh to offer since the late 80s - and yet who tenaciously hang around album after album as martyrs for some sort of perverse cause. But the band, in my mind, has never shed an ounce of talent, and 4:13 dishes up proof of this theory in effervescent abundance. The Cure has spewed out a spate of stunningly solid albums across their 30 year career, and deserve accolades of the highest order for their ability to paint both impressionistic and expressionistic soundscapes with equal flair. Their 80s albums, of course, will always be the ones most hailed, but I do believe that this is because music is rooted in the cultural milieu of a particular era - and the decade of the 80s was a staggeringly creative one.

The actual universe may have started with a bang and will likely end with a whimper. But in the case of The Cure, the Dream commences woozily, beneath the soothing electricity of the constellations, and is codified magnificently, if boisterously, by a trippy ranting at the utter futility of it all. The dream is over; he can't take it anymore; and yet the Cure as we know it will live on into infinity. Indeed, The Cure preceded the cosmos, and will transcend it as well. Long live The Cure.

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