Tuesday 6 December
First Direct Arena, Leeds
Robert Smith and The Cure are happy Goths
In his 2004 song ‘The Happy Goth’, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy sang ‘She wears Dr. Martens and a heavy cross/But on the inside she’s a happy goth.’ Back in the dark days of the last century, going to a concert by The Cure meant seeing many goths in the audience – happy or unhappy. Although there were a few in the audience tonight, including a man who dramatically removed his Robert Smith wig after the gig, there were probably more Goths onstage than off it. But Robert Smith himself is a happy Goth now, musing on his ‘Friday night disco’ music and apologising for starting the concert with such resolutely undanceable songs as Alone (from the new album Songs of a Lost World which hasn’t yet been released) and Pictures of You. It would be a long wait for fans who had come to hear the poppier side of The Cure, ageless pop masterpieces such as Friday I’m in Love and Boys Don’t Cry which didn’t appear until the second encore nearly three hours later.
Referring to the fever dream of Shake Dog Shake, Smith said he finally understood the song, although when he turned to the next page of the lyrics he didn’t recognise the hand that wrote them because of his ‘seven second memory’ (although perhaps he meant Seventeen Seconds, after the title of the band’s second album from 1980). But despite the whimsy of Smith’s genial banter, and the disorganised tangle of his Goth hair, what is most striking about the immaculately delivered set of songs from across the decades is the precision of his songwriting; he manages to achieve a rare combination of lyrical and musical simplicity, simple instrumental lines interlocking perfectly like the mechanism of the theoretical perpetual motion machine. If that machine is impossible because it defies the laws of physics, then Smith’s voice is also a thing of wonder, that of a man 30 years younger.
If Smith still sounds like a young man, some of his new material seems to come from the bitter experience of a much older man. This lyrical theme of songs of experience that follow songs of innocence (as in William Blake’s poetry collection of 1789) began around the turn of the millennium when he wrote ‘It used to be so easy/I never even tried … All that I feel for or trust in or love/All that is gone’ (The Last Day of Summer). In much earlier times, Smith wrote almost cheerfully about death, with the insouciance of youth, ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die’ (from One Hundred Years, played elsewhere on this tour but not tonight). On the new song I can Never Say Goodbye he reflects on the cruel reality of death that has recently taken away both his parents and his brother, poignantly singing ‘Something wicked this way comes/To steal away my brother’s life.’
Simon Gallup, Smith’s long-time partner on bass still retains his youthful energy. A one-man rock and roll show, he wears his bass low-slung like Peter Hook, prowling around the stage while other members of the band are almost statuesque, sometimes putting one foot on a monitor in classic rock star pose. But Gallup’s playing is far from cliched; his bass tone is superb tonight, and his melodic and inventive guitar lines are always a joy to hear. He has fun on A Forest, duetting with Smith at the end as Smith improvises guitar chords over the iconic bass line, ending with a solo blast of distortion.
‘New’ member Reeves Gabrels on guitar, who incredibly has now been part of The Cure for ten years, provides respectful backup but occasionally produces florid and virtuosic solos that remind us of his avant-garde work with David Bowie. Drummer Jason Cooper is never showy but remains the rock on which The Cure’s Gothic edifice securely stands. And Roger O’Donnell fills in the spaces between the stark guitar lines with rich keyboard washes. The sound throughout the evening is beautifully clear, revealing the interlocking textures of the instrumental part while Smith’s distinctive tenor soars above. Despite Smith’s plaintive cry of ‘it used to be so easy’, the band still make playing live sound easy – the mark of a great live band who may or may not have been playing for one hundred years already.