Big Music: The Cure Live At Wembley Arena

Rather than the miserabilists they’re often unfairly painted as, watching The Cure at Wembley Tariq Goddard finds a band of sincerity and empathy, with superb new songs of colossal scale and a bond between artist and audience that continues to grow tighter and more heartfelt as time keeps passing

Photos courtesy of Jim Dyson

One of the few things I can still agree with Leon Trotsky on is that “old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man”. There was a time when I could no more imagine The Cure growing old than I could myself. My reason for thinking I would stay the same was because I was young, whereas The Cure simply seemed to stand outside time altogether, and so were disqualified from the ordinary ways of measuring duration and decay. Their appearance, basically a mask, which would morph from the strikingly decorative into a recognisable disguise over the decades, encouraged this. As did the music, which having reached something like full realisation with 2000’s Bloodflowers, rendered any further euphonious progression pointless if not impossible (as the two albums of repertoire retreads released since then unfortunately demonstrated). Happily, the brand new material that features heavily in their London set avoids those missteps, tapping back into their “big music”; The Cure’s own wall of sound that evokes timelessness and time passing, nearer post rock than goth, a vast musical Siberia, evanescing in a wash of pedals, drum rolls and memory. Despite their slow pace, which is all part of the point, none of the new numbers drag. Instead they are as reassuring as hearing a greatest hits set by your favourite group (which is also thoughtfully provided). 46 years of experience have given Smith a solid grasp of his band’s core competencies.

The passing years at least mean that Smith no longer has to endure the unnerving experience of looking into an audience that looks more like him than he does. Most of us in the audience tonight reflect the quotidian reality that the tribal era of the eighties is now a matter of historical record, and that the gap between how we appear in our spare time and the face we wear to the day job narrows all the time. In a sense this is a greater compliment to Smith than an army of clones and imitators could ever be: he will always be the lead singer of The Cure, free from the compromises in appearance and outlook that the rest of us are subject to, and if the wild hair and make-up look a little unusual on a man in his sixties, there were plenty of people who balked at the way he looked in 1986 too. As Smith takes the stage he seems genuinely bashful, as surprised as he is delighted that we are all here, but also assured, as he is about to unleash a natural gift he is rarely credited with possessing, his incredible singing voice. From the moment Smith opens his mouth to sing, the vocals cut through everything, his voice seeming to neither have developed or been diminished by time, but sounding exactly the same as it did on the records I have been listening to since I was eleven. It is difficult to think of anyone who so closely and penetratingly, and to such an advantage, resembles their recorded self.

‘Alone’, the first new song and the first song they play, reveals that time has been very much playing on Smith’s mind too. It is a gentle and gorgeous meditation on finality and endings, the group keeping time like a benevolent all-seeing clock, their stately backing rendering Smith’s curt appraisal of our situation bearable: “This is the end of every song we sing, wе were always sure that wе would stay the same, but it all stops”. That none of this is at all depressing, especially as the audience knows they are in for a very long set, and yet still greet the first and final bars like a lost classic, as they do every mention of loss and pain, alludes to other overlooked aspects of this group’s appeal.

In spite of his apparent solipsism, Smith is a great empathiser, his experiences rooted deep in his Surrey upbringing (like that other cult style icon, contemporary and neighbour of his, Paul Weller), his songs often dealing with the profound banalities encountered early in life, that later become the moods and questions that define us (‘I Can Never Say Goodbye’, another song of regret, about his brother’s death, later silences the auditorium, whereas ‘A Night Like This’ rouses the crowd like one of the best love songs ever written, which it is). From the jagged guitar lines and nervous suburban boredom of early Cure, to the searing and labyrinthine elegies on the human condition they grew into, Smith has forged a relationship with his audience that is every bit as sincere and involved as that of the great showmen, Mercury and Presley. This crowd love him, and that love is returned with understated smiles and waves, both parties satisfied that they understand one another.

It is also only superficially incongruous that a track like ‘Endsong’ (“I’m standing in the dark wondering how I got so old”), preceded by bangers like ‘Play For Today’ (“allez le cure,” the French group squeezed next to me yell before going mad) and ‘A Forest’, evince no slowdown in enthusiasm from the crowd, or even from the band who look completely carried away with being in The Cure. Their enthusiasm and playfulness addresses the hoary misconception that The Cure are self pitying nihilists, peddling angsty miserablism for those who can’t stomach anything stronger. The old complaint that Smith could not be taken seriously because he was not Ian Curtis, lacking the latter’s intensity and integrity, talking the talk but not walking the walk as he had failed to kill himself, is a testament to the importance once placed on music and musicians, and also a great disservice to Smith. Curtis never had an obvious pop side, Joy Division were innately unsettled, whereas I don’t believe The Cure ever inflicted misery on anyone who did not come looking for it. That is not to suggest that Smith is or was a fake, playing with ennui when he knew he was never in any real danger, because even at his most desperate (the elemental agony of ‘Shake Dog Shake’ does the impossible tonight, and makes Wembley feel like an intimate venue) he sings with a vitality and energy that resists the fading of the light. The Cure are a band of brash and excitable jouissance, and if there is sometimes a masochistic pleasure in wallowing, it never depletes the will to go on, or the acceptance that pain is part of a full and complete (musical) existence.

Even Smith’s harshest lyrical moments are driven by a life affirming curiosity, the hurt and despair of the words absorbed by the music into something more beautiful and considered. This is most obvious in the manic succession of encores, first with songs off the Disintegration album, which even in full flight retain a glorious somnambulance, followed by another eight song encore of the band’s most self-conscious poppiest moments. Far from being at odds with himself, Smith’s pop genius is as evident in ‘Prayers For Rain’ as it is in ‘Friday I’m In Love’. The hits and gloom aren’t different sides of a split personality that jar, rather the lights and shades of one variable continuum. ‘Disintegration’ is a song of exhilaration and wonder, with hooks as strong as ‘Let’s Got To Bed’, a song the band race through with hyperactive gusto, before going on to reach full transcendence with ‘Just Like Heaven’; which must be one of the few things I have watched people record on a phone that I can imagine wanting to watch back later. They finish with ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, performed with a knowing affection, and a wistful expansiveness worthy of a forgotten Disintegration outtake, the end of the show humming in a kind of sustained crescendo, before the lights go up and it’s all over, the past few hours having disappeared as quickly and imperceptibly as only life after forty can.

Nights like this are as good as it gets for any band. Whether they have anywhere left to go does not matter. The Cure’s best days may well be over, but they would not want them back, not with the fire in them now.

Tariq Goddard will be reading from and discussing his new novel, High John The Conqueror at Watkins Bookshop London on 19 January, Voce Books Birmingham on 26 January and October Books Southampton on 2 February.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Robert Smith’s brother died of Covid-19. This is not the case, as he died in 2017.

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