Robert Smith - What becomes of the broken-hearted?

From Smashing Pumpkins to Edward Scissorhands, The Cure's Robert Smith has been influencing pop culture for decades. It's just a shame that the band's new album is a doom-laden swirl of angst and self-loathing. Please lighten up, urges Andy Gill

Friday 07 November 2008 01:00

Is this any way for a grown man to behave? It's a query frequently applied to any adult male indulging in excessively youthful behaviour, from rugger-buggers with their idiotic drinking games, to dads on skateboards. Alcohol is usually involved, and poor fashion sense – though to their offspring that is a given, taken for granted. Indeed, many fathers take wicked delight in deliberately embarrassing their children through carefully chosen wardrobe misdemeanours or displays of terpsichorean incompetence. (Since time immemorial – well, the Sixties, at least – parents have known that the easiest way to ensure they'll never again have to hear their kids' most annoying record is to dance energetically to it in front of their friends: a moment's self-abasement, but a lifetime's peace.)

The Cure's Robert Smith has not, as far as I'm aware, fathered any children, which is perhaps a mercy: one can only imagine the turmoil they would go through as they approached adolescence to find that the usual signifiers of teen discontent – bad hair, sullen disposition, angst-ridden music and a view of the world as a pit of alienation and despair – remained the province of their dad. Well, at least he doesn't dance.

Many rock stars come to regret being saddled with the yoke of their youthful style choices. The smarter ones, like Dylan and Bowie, quickly establish the practice of drastically changing their look every few years, up to the point when they can just disregard such matters. But imagine being the superannuated frontman of a heavy metal band, with all that hair falling in your dinner, and those stinking leather trousers to tug on come showtime. Or some ageing boy-band marionette, perma-smiling and pancaked to the hairline, struggling not to wheeze as you run listlessly through dance routines.

Showbiz can be the cruellest of Faustian pacts, in that the recipient of worldly bounty is required to be forever on display, condemned to be forever frozen in the mode they adopted when they first achieved fame. So: smart move, Leonard Cohen; maximum points for effort, Iggy Pop; nice hair, Cher; and you haven't quite thought this through, have you, Robert Smith?

Or maybe he has. The Cure frontman's image of tousled rat's-nest and poorly applied mascara and lipstick (MAC Ruby Woo, fashion hounds) atop nondescript bagginess stuffed into boot-sized trainers has become one of rock's most recognisable signature styles, easily lampooned in comedy sketches from The Mary Whitehouse Experience to The Mighty Boosh – in which a super-strength hairspray favoured by Vince is said to be made "from Robert Smith's tears" – and not as hard for fans to copy as, say, Kiss's or Boy George's.

Smith has admitted that he started wearing make-up in his teenage years as a deliberate attempt to separate himself from the crowd and irritate people. "You put on eyeliner and people start screaming at you," he realised. "How strange, and how marvellous." But that's only half of its impact: cleverly, it's a look that screams "Look at me!" then, in the very same glimpse, glowers "Stop looking at me!", simultaneously inviting one's attention and condemning that attention as oppressive and restrictive. So Smith is clearly sharper than he looks – which, admittedly, isn't much of a stretch.

It's also no great surprise that his look became the default setting for middle-class adolescent angst, the hallmark of young suburban refuseniks all over the Western world, its rippling echoes discernible, albeit in more studied form, in the likes of Marilyn Manson, Nicky Wire, My Chemical Romance, and the vast majority of Goth and emo acts, most of whom also owe a huge debt to The Cure musically, too – none more so than Smashing Pumpkins, whose entire sonic palette and dismal attitude sounds as if it was based on close scrutiny of albums like Pornography and Disintegration.

Smith's style received perhaps its greatest tribute by undoubtedly furnishing the underlying visual template for Tim Burton's cinematic fairy tale of inchoate alienation, Edward Scissorhands, in which Johnny Depp's titular hero not only affects Smith's tonsorial catastrophe and panda eyes, but whose physical presence likewise exudes a sense of spiritual discomfiture within the world.

There's nothing wrong with adolescent alienation, of course, provided there's no easy access to guns. And equally, there's nothing wrong with expressing that alienation artistically: some would say that is exactly what rock'n'roll is, and they wouldn't be too far from the truth. But adolescent alienation is necessarily a simplistic, black-and-white world-view usually prompted by youthful outrage at injustice – "It's so unfair!" – which in time gives way to a more mature recognition of the broader greyscale of the complexities of life. Those hard-won insights are a large part of what makes the later works of great artists, from Shakespeare and Picasso to Mallick and Dylan, so rewarding; and they are usually attended by a greater reluctance to rush to judgement or act impulsively.

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This, more than anything to do with Smith's visual style, is what I'm referring to when I ask if this is any way for a grown man to behave. I couldn't really care less about his appearance – like Elvis's jumpsuit, Sly Stone's Afro and Slade's platform boots, it all adds to the gaiety of nations – but I find something rather creepy about the way that his work and his world view also seem not to have shifted more than a micron or two since the Eighties. On The Cure's new album 4:13 Dream, Smith still seems immersed in the same slough of self-pity, strapped to an emotional pendulum swinging between extremes of unalloyed self-loathing and unfeasible romantic expectations. When he's down, which is most of the time, he's staring into the deepest, blackest abyss imaginable, and when he's in love, he's in a giddy spin: in psychological terms, a classic bipolar personality. But it's the juvenile manner in which these emotional poles are expressed that makes me so uncomfortable. Robert Smith will be 50 next year, yet he still seems like an emotional infant.

Okay, the same could be said of Brian Wilson, the original "adult child". But Wilson never started a song with the line "I won't try to bring you down about my suicide", and never lapsed into the foetid self-hatred of a song like "It's Over". For Wilson, as for many blues musicians, music is a means of hauling oneself out of that pit, a talent with the gift of transcendence – whereas for Smith, it seems more like a mechanism for dragging others down into the pit with you. Which I believe to be a less noble undertaking. And given that, for all the tortured emotional distress with which his new album is awash, Smith has been happily married to his childhood sweetheart for some three decades now, one has to wonder whether these agonised accounts of romantic cataclysm are truly felt, or simply fabricated emotional fictions, no more authentic than a hit-factory love jingle.

It wasn't always this way. For an all-too-brief period in the mid-Eighties, The Cure seemed to have surmounted the gothic gloom of albums like Faith and the über-grim Pornography, revealing an unexpectedly playful side in tracks like the swingy "The Lovecats" and poppy "Close To Me". The video for the latter confirmed this new silliness, depicting the band "playing" the song while crammed into a wardrobe falling off a cliff into the sea.

But no sooner had this lighter aspect appeared than it was gone. Depressed at approaching 30, and perhaps affected by the suicides of two Cure fans, Smith retreated into himself to write the band's 1989 album Disintegration, which plunged The Cure back into the grim self-absorption of Pornography. For its recording, he apparently adopted a monkish silence towards his fellow band-members, later admitting: "I actually wanted an environment that was slightly unpleasant." It certainly transferred to the album, but against all expectations, Disintegration weathered initial critical disapproval to lodge itself firmly in fans' hearts, ultimately becoming the band's most commercially successful release, selling more than three million copies.

Since then, Smith may have changed The Cure's line-up, but its sound, style and attitude have for the most part stayed close to the Disintegration blueprint. Following 1992's chart-topping Wish, there has been a steady decline in The Cure's fortunes, though the band's core fanbase retains an apparently limitless thirst for Smith's brand of overcooked misery. But given that many of them must now, like him, be approaching middle-age, one has to wonder whether it's just fond memories they're clinging to, and how many secretly harbour the same nagging doubt... Is this any way for a grown man to behave?

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