Tuesday, May 22, 2012
The Cure: "The Top"
"As stale and selfish as a sick dog, spurning sex like an animal of god. I'll tear your red hair by the roots and hold you blazing, hold you cherished in the dead electric light," Robert Smith sneers on "Shake Dog Shake," the opening track from "The Top," which was released around this time in 1984. Launching with a sudden drum barrage and mad cackling laughter, "Shake Dog Shake" is an apt introduction to this schizophrenic collection. "The Top", as an album, is dreamy, loopy, psychedelic, and a bit cracked... the first time Robert Smith merged the sullen musings and manic aggression of albums like "Faith" and "Pornography" with the kaleidoscopic pop of singles like "Let's Go to Bed" and "The Lovecats." For the first time we have the template of The Cure's greatest successes; a bipolar mix of kinetic and iridescent pop, anguished confessionals and venomous freakouts. "Shake Dog Shake" is tormented decadence: "we slept all night in the virgin's bed, and dreamed of death and breathed like sick dogs." What the hell? It's a powerful opening and propels the listener head-first into a sickly sweet and brilliantly mad world that's equal part nightmare and daydream fantasy.
Somehow, "The Top" has gone down in history as one of The Cure's minor works, but that is unfair. Perhaps because there was only one hit single - the dreamy folk pop of "The Caterpillar", a trip down the rabbit-hole that's both irresistibly catchy and laden with opium smoke. It's pure imagination on a grand scale for a pop song, with bits of textures and sound that ornament a campfire singalong on acid. It's impossible to credit that only a couple years earlier, Robert Smith's band was churning out a soul-searingly bleak album like "Pornography", a collection of songs as unforgiving and harsh as any released in the rock era. A wailing wall of towering rage and hopelessness. "The Caterpillar" is another universe entirely, but just as manic and disturbed in its way.
"Birdmad Girl" is the 2nd single that should have been. There aren't many obvious commercial moments on this album, but this tune is just catchy enough that, with a colorful video, it might have followed "The Caterpillar" up the charts. But alas, whether through record company unease or Robert Smith's disinterest, only one single would be released from "The Top" (and it was adorned with two stellar b-sides that, frankly, should have been on the album. "Happy the Man" and "Throw Your Foot" fit perfectly into the delirious odyssey of ideas and sounds that make "The Top" such an exhilarating ride).
"Give Me It" is a nonstop crescendo of madness; it most closely harkens the album back to the "Pornography" days but with a decidedly different flavor. It's maddening and epic, and Smith spits the lyrics with pure malevolence. It's an almost certifiable fit of self-loathing. "Leave me alone like the pig on the stairs in the groovy purple shirt." Um, yeah. Or this nugget: "My heart is cold, my heart is black, and stops every fucking night, every night I wait until it stops" - - all wailed over top a rattling maelstrom of pounding drums, clanging guitars and horns. "Give Me It" is the type of desperate fit that might end up being observed through thick glass windows, surrounded by well-padded walls.
"Piggy in the Mirror" is a sinister little concoction, with powerfully evocative imagery and a deliberately offkilter vocal. "Shapes in the drink like Christ; cracks in the pale blue wall". It's a drug-fueled daydream, twirling around a room and dancing along with (or flinching way from) the flitting images conjured by a mind layered with neuroses. Not your typical pop music.
Smith is clearly stretching his vocal and creative wings on this album, continuing and expanding upon the direction he started with his fantasy trilogy of singles that followed the post-"Pornography" crackup. For example, "Dressing Up". Another trip gone awry. It's a twisted carnival ride of beauty and weirdness with Smith's odd vocal drawl sliding across the cascading keyboards like a howling ghost haunting a carousel. The manic, Tom Waits-inspired "Bananafishbones" is another cunningly berserk pop experiment that sounds like The Lovecats' sorta demented cousin - the one ya kinda just nod your head to and wonder what the fuck he is doing.
"The Empty World," with its stately martial beat and desolate imagery, is another tie to the past - revisiting "Charlotte Sometimes" but older, more aware. The record concludes with the title track, long, intense, moody - it ties the album together but brings no resolution. "This top is the place where nobody goes... you just imagine it all.." The entire album is a demented thrill ride through that imaginary place. It ends with the despondent, almost pitiable cries, "please come back! please come back! All of you..." Whether he is pleading to the ghosts in his head, or maybe he's searching for a lifeline back to reality, hard to say...
The album overall, it should be noted, still sounds remarkably fresh and current. It doesn't have that dated 80s sound that so many records of the era are stuck with. Essentially a solo project - The Cure had functionally ceased to exist as a band at this point - "The Top" is a feverish album; it's loaded with fancies and bad dreams and obsessions. But it's beautifully executed in its obscurity. The fact that there is a lack of obvious pop hits is a strength here, not a weakness. It's like a spinning Top, in fact, careening madly around the big tent in Robert Smith's head. It's "Sgt. Peppers" played by a cast of evil clowns lurking in dark hallways; they'll either butcher everyone in the house or throw the world's most demented sex-balloon party, or maybe both. So yeah... it's a bit scary to peek into this colorful psyche but it's well-worth the twists and turns. An album that rewards repeated listens and some willingness to appreciate the pure genius of the creativity Robert Smith expresses.