In the spectrum of self-conscious postpunk British bands, the Cure fall squarely between Wire’s sophisticated, jagged architectonics and the Undertones’ concise, wide-eyed pop music. They incorporate a little of each. I guess this means that these guys average out at the college-sophomore level, which is appropriate, since their first English single (the desert-spare “Killing an Arab”) was based on an Albert Camus novel. The Stranger. It’s hard to pull off such a feat without being called pretentious, but Boys Don’t Cry, the Cure’s American debut, proves they can transcend their Comp. Lit. 201 (Elementary Angst) scenarios.
The Cure’s bass-heavy, threeman sound works like a telescoping lens, focusing and magnifying a hook around a central line or image that makes each vignette ring true — like the one piece of back ground bric-a-brac that makes a movie set seem real. Songwriter Robert Smith has a gift for close-ups: the apt, arty phrase or stinging, succinct guitar overdub. In “Fire in Cairo,” he turns a simile into a mantra (his girlfriend’s hair burns like “f-i-r-i i-n c-a-i-r-o”) and reiterates it over a bumpy dance beat. Smith’s sound-effects guitar in “Killing an Arab” — either crackling through the mix like reverberating gunfire or stringing snake-charmer melodies — transforms the terse lyrics into a you are-there slide show: “Standing on a beach with a gun in my hand/Staring at the sea Staring at the sand Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground.”
Chris Parry’s crystal-clear production separates Michael Dempsey’s bass and Lol Tolhurst’s drums, as if to fence off a large patch of silence in the center. Along with neat production touches like the clattering trash-can percussion that echoes into the distance on the fade of “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” the empty spaces highlight the group’s dynamic variations. Compositions like “10:15 Saturday Night” and “Subway Song” (about a girl trailed in the shadows) have the edgy quietude of reality. Every drawn breath, each finger snapped in the darkness, falls distinctly and significantly.
Amid the Cure’s nerve-edge numbers — hushed and haunting or insistent enough to make you dance to your own jitters — the title track is the odd tune out. “Boys Don’t Cry” is a sweetly anguished pure-pop single, carried by an aching, infectious guitar hook and the singer’s taffypull croon. Though it doesn’t have the film-clip explicitness of Smith’s other songs, the words offer a nice twist on the standard lovelorn script: boy meets girl, mistreats girl, loses girl, yearns for girl but won’t appear vulnerable — even to get her back. Hell, if Robert Smith ever decides to quit rock & roll, he’s got a great career ahead of him writing for the movies.