Near the middle of the Cure's new album, Wish, Robert Smith, the band's singer, songwriter and guitarist, encounters a girl who says, "It looks like you could do with a friend." This is funny, and not just because the tune ("Wendy Time") breaks out into the sort of screwball beat that the Cure revved up so well for "Why Can't I Be You?" "You look like you could do with a pal/Someone to make you smile," she continues, and no wonder: Five songs into Wish, Smith has already howled long and hard about the hells of intoxication, the shifting sands of time and, of course, the travails of love.
Smith is the top howler in pop music now. Bravely, mastering his own literate notions of how bands might do more with postpunk "gloom rock" than just bellyache, he has fiddled around with and fine-tuned the Cure for fifteen years. Since The Head on the Door (1985), when he discovered the joys of groove, acoustic jangle and any instrumentation that could further heighten the increasing emotionality of his songs, Smith's work with the Cure has never been less than original, often inspired. Wish lacks the dynamic grab of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987) and the awesome brooding rush of Disintegration (1989). Yet this outstanding album, like all the Cure's best music, runs on its own brash logic, making a virtue of its emotional polarities.
Smith has reason to be so confident; by several years, the Cure anticipated the loud, often abrasive, well-crafted Nineties rock of British "shoe gazers" like My Bloody Valentine and rhythm-mad Mancunians like Primal Scream. Moreover, Smith's demonstration that carefully recorded distortion and freed emotions — no matter how personal — can reach millions foreshadowed the international success of Nirvana. But unlike, say, U2, the Cure doesn't conceive of itself as a Great Band, damn well seeing to it that the world listens. Smith has always demanded, R.E.M.-style, that multiplatinum audiences come to him and his various collaborators: All he wants is for you to hear how he feels.
Revisiting the intensity of Disintegration, Wish leads with "Open," a portrayal of one man's reflexive drinking done with a steady sway of drumming, interlocking guitars and Smith's all-out singing, which grows wilder and "sicker" as he "clutches another glass." The chord changes in the chorus accentuate the state of mind of the protagonist, who keeps "pouring it down." Other songs in this style include the psychedelic ravings of "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" — about a troubled couple who debate loyalty and betrayal as the man observes that the woman's head seems "on fire" — and the slower "Apart," one of the best songs on Wish. The song's Middle Eastern elegance builds as Smith keeps wondering, "How did we get so far apart?" Smith uses his voice almost like another raging guitar on "Cut," and ever the antistar, he instructs, "Please stop loving me/I am none of these things," on "End," the album's noisy conclusion.
Other songs inhabit grander, sweeter, more nostalgic or more rueful worlds. The cinematic "Trust," with larger-than-life synth lines, is a plea for stability, tinged with hope; in a setting like this, with Smith pledging his love forever, that girl probably won't catch the next train out. "Friday I'm in Love," a Cure tune for fans of snappy Sixties pop, comes with zinging harmonies and acoustic-guitar melodies that skitter against Smith's carefree celebration of the freedom weekends present. Both "A Letter to Elise" and "To Wish Impossible Things" look back in midtempo and analyze failed love in personal and philosophical terms.
But as "High," the album's first single, and "Doing the Unstuck" insist, Wish seeks to offset the Cure's famous mopeyness with some joy. Happiness — that's always been somewhere in the Cure's dire music, in the band's long-standing commitment to exploration and play. Wish clarifies this further. "It's never too late to get up and GO!" Smith sings on "Doing the Unstruck," sounding like no other booster on earth. For its cult of millions, the Cure offers the only kind of optimism that makes sense.