Prince and the Cure’s Robert Smith may, at first, seem to have little in common — apart from a penchant for eyeliner and high hair. But, in fact, they’re two suburban doofuses who turned out to be the most unlikely love gods of the ’80s. Prince, a short man mincing around in high heels, has managed to parlay his lascivious fantasies into a reported $100 million business deal. Robert Smith has built a veritable cult around his roly-poly loneliness. And they both write guitar anthems for malcontents: “Stairway to Heaven” has nothing on “Purple Rain” or “Why Can’t I Be You?”
In the beginning — the late ’70s — both Prince and Smith toyed with their androgynous qualities. Prince’s slight body in silhouette or chiffon can look quite feminine, a fact that he’s milked nearly to the point of self-parody (those backless trousers?); and Smith mocks gender lines by cloaking himself in layers of black, then festooning his lips with a dark blood red. That’s the perfect game to play for teenagers, boys and girls who are themselves caught up in a tornado of sexual confusion. Prince and Smith are performers who embrace, if not cultivate, idiosyncrasy and mystery — Prince dressed in a thong, garters and stockings singing explicitly about women; Smith performing in dense clouds of smoke, only occasionally poking his face out so that it’s visible. Of course, odd habits appeal to an audience that feels it doesn’t fit in. The enigma becomes a deity.
A curious thing happens on Show, a live album that the Cure recorded during last year’s Wish tour. Waves of applause swell between songs, which interrupts the solitary nature of being an individual, alienated Cure fan but underscores Smith’s power to unite such fans collectively. The Cure play stadiums now. In spite of that, Show doesn’t seem much like a live album — and that’s good. There are no unbearable guitar solos or concert versions that completely distort the songs, just the big, echoing sound that has filled many lonesome rooms. The 18-track record seems more like a greatest-hits collection, covering the ground from early brooding to sudden bursts of whimsy, from the solemnity of “The Walk” (1983) to last year’s hit, the almost-sunny “Friday I’m in Love.” “Let’s Go to Bed” and “Pictures of You” are vintage Cure, with Smith’s trademark on-the-verge-of-tears vocals way out front. The “I don’t care if you don’t” refrain from “Let’s Go to Bed” captures the angst of youth better than John Hughes ever could. And the images from “Pictures of You” (“You were stone white, so delicate, lost in the dark”) describe both Smith and his disciples in detail.
The Prince package is a dizzying sprawl. There are 36 songs between Volumes 1 and II; each disc is available separately, but if they are bought together, they come with an additional disc of 20 B sides and rarities that is otherwise not available. The songs are divided neither by period (the material spans 15 years, from 1978 to now) nor by style, but by degree of raciness: Volume 1′s got the “clean” songs, such as the subversively sexual “When Doves Cry,” the rocking “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and the party classic “1999,” plus a live version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” (a duet with Rosie Gaines) and the previously unreleased “Pink Cashmere.” Volume II’s got the “dirty” stuff, such as “Head,” the jazz-funk song about a virgin’s sexual awakening (among other things) punctuated by Prince’s squealing guitar; the disco-dancing “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” one of the girlie-man songs on which he revels in the risquÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© (“I wanna be your lover/I wanna be the only one you come for”) in an impossibly high falsetto; and the smash hit “Raspberry Beret,” a small-town narrative about a motorcycle, old man Johnson’s farm and doing it in a barn with horses looking on; plus the recent concert rocker “Peach”; and a rare foray away from the carnal and into the political, “Pope” (“You can be the president, I’d rather be the pope/You can be the side effect, I’d rather be the dope”).
The B sides range from the obscure (“200 Balloons,” “Horny Toad”) to the absurd (the press-loathing “Hello,” the lustily titled but extremely silly “Scarlet Pussy”) to the favorites of the fixated (“Erotic City,” “Irresistible Bitch”). There are also a few outstanding tracks. If “She’s Always in My Hair” or “Another Lonely Christmas” are any indication of the reported 500 songs Prince has in his vaults, his label just might get its money’s worth — even if he keeps his word and never makes another studio album.
In the end, Show and The Hits: Volumes 1 & II are essential documents of the past decade, if only to close a chapter. Polar opposites as artists, Prince and Robert Smith both capture the imagination of a generation — Prince with an overt sexiness, Smith with a covert. Even as Prince thrusts himself into his guitar or licks it, even as Smith gives a little wiggle of his hips, there’s something raw and vulnerable about them. It’s the eternal quest for love, and that may be the secret of the seduction.