SORT OF LIKE HEAVEN
Sydney Opera House, 30 May
Photos by Barry Divola
If I had a dollar for every musician who ever told me “I don’t read my reviews” then I’d have a few hundred bucks. Robert Smith of The Cure - or at last someone close to him - clearly does read his reviews. Because early press for the first of five nights at the Vivid festival in Sydney judged his decision to play almost an hour of B-sides and out-takes after playing the 1989 album Disintegration as a meandering mistake. Smith decided to re-jig the show, playing the album second. It didn’t completely solve the problem (more on that later) but it did greatly improve the dynamics of the show.
First things first – is Disintegration worthy of an entire show? Yes, it is generally considered a miserabilist masterpiece among hardcore fans, an album Smith wrote as he neared 30, reportedly disillusioned with the pop success that had surprisingly come his way and reportedly taking certain quantities of LSD. And yes, it contains some of Smith’s grandest and greatest songs, such as Lovesong, Lullaby and Fascination Street, but a few other tracks are bolstered by pomp and circumstance without having the strength or structure to stand head-and-shoulders with his best work.
Try quibbling about this with Smith’s loyal fanbase at your peril. Some followers - from twentysomethings to fiftysomethings - teased their hair and smudged their make-up in honour of their idol and were chanting for him long before the lights went down, as a tape of a rainstorm flooded the Opera House.
This was the final night of the run and it was being filmed and streamed live around the world, so there was an extra frisson and sense of occasion in the room. The first section needed the extra goodwill, because there are often good reasons for songs becoming B-sides and out-takes. Even Smith seemed keen to downplay the set. At one point he called the first section “this weird introduction”. Later he said, “These next few songs, I didn’t have the time or the words to make them songs.”
Which begs the question: “Why play them then, sir?” The best of the bunch is Too Late, which has shape, impetus, crunch and Smith’s best vocal to that point. But there’s plenty of filler here. If I can put in my two cents, a better bet would have been to play the album, take a break, then come back with a set of older, iconic Cure songs that informed Disintegration in some way, one for each of the seven albums and one EP that preceded it. Smith’s not asking for my opinion, but I’m a fan, and we all know fan’s opinions count, so here’s my list anyway – Three Imaginary Boys (which they actually did play in the encore), Play For Today, A Forest, The Walk, The Hanging Garden, Shake Dog Shake, A Night Like This, Just Like Heaven. It’s crowd-pleasing without being pandering, and elements of each of those songs in some way point towards what he did in 1989. He could have even talked a little about the connections between them.
But it doesn’t matter. Disintegration was made to magnify existential melancholy and give it a grand stage, and that’s exactly what it does tonight, as an Opera House full of devotees absorb 60-year-old Smith’s 30-year-old angst and amplify it back to him in the form of awe and devotion.
They leave the stage for ten minutes and re-enter to the familiar majestic sweep and tribal thud of Plainsong. Now the doubtful among us don’t have to pretend, as it’s so easy to get swept up in the pure ceremony of the sound. Lovesong, by some measure the poppiest moment on this decidedly non-pop album, is a big, gorgeous swoon of a thing. “Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am young again,” croons Smith, and those of us who are decidedly not young anymore can only smile bittersweetly at how we’re transported back to our younger selves. And as the backdrop image changes to a giant spiderweb, the familiar tip-toe rhythm and nursery rhyme/nightmare lilt of Lullaby lifts the roof.
Which brings us to the band. Reeves Gabrels, Bowie sideman in the ’80s and ’90s, and Smith sideman for the last seven years, looks more like a rock critic than the iconic guitarist he is, and with a halo of white hair around his bald pate, a neatly trimmed goatee and aviator shades, he’s obviously there for his signature sound, not his Goth fashion cred. Likewise – only more bizarrely – long-time bassist Simon Gallup is a total anomaly. With skintight white pants, motorcycle boots, tatts up and down his arms and a Samurai-style ponytail he constantly prowls the stage with his bass slung somewhere near his knees, as if he’s auditioning for Lexxi Foxx’s spot in Steel Panther.
By the time they finish and Smith meekly wanders the stage, coyly acknowledging the acclaim, wearing an appreciative Mona Lisa smile and cupping his hands endearingly awkwardly in front of him like a grand old British dame, it’s obvious that his history, his intensity and his doggedness in sticking to an aesthetic and approach he believed in when he was still a teenager had lifted the night into something beyond its moving parts. This was an experiment that didn’t entirely work. And despite that, it still managed to be a triumph in the minds of pretty much everyone in the room. That’s love.
Barry Divola travelled to Sydney courtesy of Destination NSW.