Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dark Trilogy Part 1

Since we’re in the week of Halloween, I thought I’d pick a few albums with a darker theme to ramble about. No, there won’t be anything obvious like Misfits or Bauhaus, but what I’ve chosen, to an extent, won’t be entirely off the mark. So, to start off, a little bit of history…

It’s early March, 1990, around 10:15 on a Saturday night (you’re about to see why that’s funny) and I’m driving my mother’s faded maroon 1986 Oldsmobile station wagon through the byways of outlying Panama City. This is old Florida, none of the gaudy neon and tacky beach paradise attraction my hometown is infamous for. I’m in the sticks and I know it. The air is chill and damp and smells of moss and silence and the paper mill. The sky is dark and wide and probably without stars. The fog stretches like ghost fingers across the occasionally lit road where a nocturnal creature of any kind could step out and give a fright.

The soundtrack for this dismal setting is equally so, the Cure’s Faith, released in 1981. This is an album for empty nights and wide spaces, very minimalist, sparse and dreamy, no complex beats or time changes or intricate guitar runs. For the most part it takes its time, drawing out slowly, only a couple of songs with any sort of energy to accent and bring contrast to the overall somber mood. It’s layered and involved and yet easily executed by three or four musicians (as long as the guitarist has an echo pedal). The methodic drums, pulsing bass and swirling washes of guitar and keyboards create a landscape for Mad Bob to croon about every dejected teen’s favorite subjects: isolation, doubt and death.

The Cure was still a relatively new discovery for me in those days. I already owned Boys Don’t Cry, Standing On a Beach and Disintegration (or the Big D as I like to call it), so I had an idea what I was in for when I bought Faith at Camelot Music a couple of weeks before. I had somewhat befriended the manager of the store, a 30 something guy who loved Led Zeppelin and to whom everything else was but a secondary footnote. I was a bit nervous when I came up to the counter with my purchase. He looked down at it with friendly skepticism and said, “So this is what you’re getting into now?” I mustered all of my courage and squeaked in mock defiance, “Yes.” The college aged girl with him behind the counter, who didn’t strike me as the type, glanced over at the CD and said, “That’s good stuff, you leave him alone.” Whew.

I wish I could remember my first listen to this album. The impressions I got. If I’d sat transfixed for roughly 40 minutes or read a book or watched the Cosby Show on mute. Even with a fair sampling of the band, I still had no idea what to expect. All I’d had to go on was the album single Primary (which I thought was fun and catchy) from the Standing On a Beach comp (I only had the cassette, where the CD version, I now know, has Other Voices as well). I knew it would be different from the jangle and post punk of Boys Don’t Cry, but had no clue that the flange heavy drive of Primary would easily be the lightest, most hopeful moment on the entire album. Again, I had the Big D as a latter day reference, but that full, shimmering barrage of keyboards and chiming guitars made the themes of love and loss and ultimate despair seem natural and fitting. So nothing had really prepared me for the blatant and in most ways unexplained desolation that was, and is, Faith.

Again, I can’t remember my first impression, but I can remember the day after, or at least the Monday after, walking through the halls of A. C. Mosley High School with The Drowning Man spinning in my head. Weaving through the other students, books under my arm, head slightly bent, I was there but I was not there, wrapped up in this song, this album, this secret that I was now in on, something to set me further apart from the jock/prep/redneck monotony I found myself surrounded by. I believe it was Cindy Shirley I ran into first, and when she asked me what was up, I told her I’d discovered something really great, something life changing. She seemed interested, maybe impressed, probably just being polite, and I know that at some point I let her borrow the disc. Turns out she wasn’t impressed. Why did I like her again?

So, back to the station wagon… I’m coming into town again, lights from gas stations and convenience stores streaking the inside of the car. In the rearview mirror I can see the faces of my companions, three girls (one of them Cindy), in the seat behind me. They’re all quiet, seemingly bewildered, and pale, I can definitely remember pale. I’m not sure if they’d been arguing, they usually were (none of them spoke to each other within five years after high school), or if they were as drawn into the music as I was, wrapped in a shell of quiet yet beautiful anxiety. (Well, Cindy obviously wasn’t, but anyway...) It was a mellow mood, thoughtful, and I was probably hoping that this new, cool music I was playing would convince one of them to like me. Especially since it was obvious that the fact they’d just seen me play my first ever show (my black Gibson “Ripper” bass occupied the passenger seat beside me) at a house party down off of John Pitts Road wasn’t doing much in that area.

The fact is, they, and most people, don’t get as obsessive about music as I do. They probably didn’t mind it, maybe even enjoyed it, and probably did or eventually would own a copy of Standing On a Beach or the Big D, but they wouldn’t invest in the catalogue, and certainly weren’t setting down any foundations, allowing the rhythmic drone of All Cats are Gray or the biting lash of Doubt to design the blueprints for what would be the rest of their lives.

Faith has done this for me.

And that’s an interesting analogy being a Christian as well, and even more so because this album is bookended by songs with (anti) religious themes. The Holy Hour (which I later learned via a live bootleg was dedicated to Ian Curtis), with its heavy bass and understated beats, and its Catholic/Anglican imagery, denounces the blind devotion to religion (“I cannot hold what you devour”), watching people go through the motions mindlessly and not seeing the purpose or the fulfillment. And again on the title track, another prominent bass line carried by modest drums, where the “narrator” realizes he can’t continue in his present direction, yet can’t rely upon the words and actions of others, so is forced to go away “alone, with nothing left but faith.” But in what? Bob never says.

In between anger and uncertainty with his faith, Robert’s lyrics focus on the things that have brought him to this point; the anger and uncertainty of relationships (The Funeral Party, Doubt), anger and uncertainty with self (Primary, Other Voices, The Drowning Man) and, the near centerpiece of the album, All Cats are Grey, a brief (lyrically) ode to the loss of identity and the complete paranoia of walls closing in. This is an album often painful to listen to, and should only be done so to either confirm or fully realize your morose feelings or bring you down a notch when you think your continuous good mood might be getting on your friends’ nerves.

Nearly 20 years and countless listens later, Faith is still a desert island disc for me. Still my all time favorite Cure album. Still in my top 10 no matter what else I stumble upon. I may not listen to it as often as I do something like Boys Don’t Cry or Wild Mood Swings (the first nine tracks on that album are a hodgepodge delight), but neither of these albums set the standard for me. It’s the perfect balance of what 17 Seconds began and Pornography welded into a standard that has, unfortunately, labeled the Cure as the godfathers of goth, a style they unwittingly helped to create without ever hoping to.

At the time I accepted that Faith was a collection of murky gems just beneath the crust of the mainstream waiting to be plucked and enjoyed. By the simple fact that it was there, and had been for nearly a decade, I took for granted how it was made and why. Even now, through the eyes of someone who has written songs and played in bands, I’m not sure how this music came about, what the initial seeds were. As best I can tell, Robert and the boys listened to rock and roll, Hendrix and the Beatles and the Doors, with not even so much as some Eno or Kraftwerk to say, “Hey, how about looking over here?” (I don’t know this for sure, so correct me if I’m wrong.) Earliest on they were Buzzcocks rip offs (who wasn’t for awhile?) before developing a jangle pop sound that was uniquely their own. And perhaps (because of reverb and echo vocals and such) this “second sound” nodded towards what was to come, but aside from the title track, there is absolutely nothing (and I’m open for arguments here) on Three Imaginary Boys that would truly clue anyone for what came next: the quiet haunts of 17 Seconds, the bleak trances of Faith, the outright rage of Pornography. And, to continue my tangent here, that’s the beauty and the misunderstanding of the Cure. Because after the one-off single Charlotte Sometimes, they would abandon that outright doom and gloom (aka goth) sound for a slew of singles that, while perhaps a bit dark in tone, especially on the b-sides, were decidedly more bouncy, upbeat and downright danceable. In other words, the Cure are chameleons. They may have a signature feel, but not a signature sound. You follow me here? And though sometimes their forays into lounge or indie rock work and sometimes not so much, the point here, which is not the point of this entry really, but why not…is that they in a lot of ways represent the entire embodiment and point of music, by dabbling and experimenting and therefore creating something that is completely different and often enjoyable.

And, to come back into focus here, that’s what was done with their slew of three albums in the early 80s, with my personal favorite and the crowning achievement of the lot being Faith. They started with what they had, instruments and a desire to make something that wasn’t and as a result made something that not only is, but has been for nearly thirty years, where the influence is obvious in bands like Low and Codeine. Not to mention a slew of goth’s subgenres like industrial and emo.

Today the Cure (FINALLY) released their long anticipated 13th album 4:13 Dream, and I don’t expect it to be anything like Faith (and I haven’t found out yet thanks to stupid Amazon), nor do I want it to be. That moment has passed, those demons have been dealt with. Faith is an album of youth at odds with the state of things, and mostly itself. Age doesn’t necessarily bring hope or wisdom, but it brings the realization that things can be dealt with, that most anyone can cope. Though it’s still fun to rant and reminisce.

Faith was remastered and reissued in 2005 with a bonus disc of rarities. A lot of it is pretty great stuff, but only if you’re already a fan of the album. So instead pick up the single disc version and have yourself a good cry.

And here’s Primary…

And the video for Other Voices… (Isn’t Robert dreamy???)

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