Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Day Forty-Nine: The Cure - Seventeen Seconds

Fiction Records ■ BEG A 65

Released April 18, 1985

Produced by Robert Smith and Mike Hedges
Assistant Production by Chris Parry and M L S
Engineered by Mike Hedges and Mike Dutton
Assistant Engineering by Nigel Green and Andrew Warwick

Side One:Side Two:
  1. A Reflection
  2. Play for Today
  3. Secrets
  4. In Your House
  5. Three
  1. The Final Sound
  2. A Forest
  3. M
  4. At Night
  5. Seventeen Seconds
I don't remember now how I found myself listening to The Cure. I think it was finding the video for "Lullaby" (meaning I probably saw it on the same tapes that led me to Marshall Crenshaw and listening to more Elvis Costello), but I'm really not sure. It meant I kept an ear out for Disintegration, but was never sure what to do with the rest of their discography. Someone I know--forgive me, for once, I can't remember who--posted video of a live performance of "Killing an Arab",¹ and I finally found myself asking: what album do I go to next? Pornography was a quick response, and I filed it away mentally--I'd picked up Bloodflowers on somewhat a whim, but had listened to it only a few times, and "Killing an Arab" told me there was something else back there, an entirely different style than what I'd heard so far.

I finally picked up a copy of Pornography, and soon found myself picking up every one of the deluxe-ified Cure remasters I saw (each came with a bonus disc of demos and live material from the time frame surrounding the album in question), Seventeen Seconds and Faith following rapidly behind Pornography, and all of it being settled when I purchased Three Imaginary Boys four months later (about a year ago). My ever-referenced used vinyl haunt last year, Hunky Dory, happened to have a copy of Faith on vinyl, though--the owner mentioned a copy of Pornography waiting in the wings, but, alas, it never appeared when I was there. In a sense, though, that has its benefits: I already really liked Pornography, but had only listened to most of the other albums a few times. That it was Seventeen Seconds and not Faith (they are the two immediate predecessors to Pornography) was even more fortuitous, as that album had stuck with me far better than Faith ever has.

If, like me, you only know/knew the Cure for songs like "Lullaby", "Lovesong", "Pictures of You" and similar, "A Reflection" might strike you quite immediately for its simplicity and its rather open structure. A repetitive twang sounds very quietly in the background, and then a single guitar and piano chord blares out--though it's apparent after the initial surprise that it's not so much blaring as at a reasonable, average volume. Smith's guitar continues to strum single chords at the first beat of each measure, while Matthieu Hartley's keys take that downbeat and plink and plunk up from it to link each together. The tone is somber but vaguely inhuman, the feeling of nature making that somberness a sort of flatline of feeling: instinct, not emotion. And then, Smith unexpectedly brightens the guitar, just slightly, but at the next chord it's fully there, the song feeling like a peeking light is now coming up over the horizon, still slow, spacious--but it loses this quickly and finds itself at the initial darker chords and generally downward stride of the opening. A distant yawning wail fades in with a sort of obscured sound, and then fades away, and the song ends on a chord that simply is not, this time, followed by another.

"Play for Today" suddenly ups the tempo, Lol (still "Laurence" at this point) Tolhurst playing a beat that fairly well shifts it--a dance speed, really. An expulsion of air--electronic, one imagines--helps to punctuate the song. Smith enters on confident harmonic notes that seem to linger and consider their next movement, even as those changes seem practiced in the performing. Simon Gallup drives the majority of the melody on the pulsing eighth notes of his bass, until Smith takes the reins and his harmonics become clean, clear, but very warmly toned chords, running at the same tempo and rhythm as Gallup's bass had been. "It's not a case of doing what's right/It's just the way I feel that matters/Tell me I'm wrong/I don't really care/It's not a case of share and share alike/I take what I require/I don't understand/You say it's not fair", Smith adds the first words of the album. The song travels at a fair pace, as established by Lol, but Smith's characteristic down-turned voice (though still in the infancy of what it would later develop) and his stripped-to-minor chords imply a downbeat sense that's more misanthropic or apathetic than it is "depressed". For all that Tolhurst set the beat, his drums are low-key, the heads all dry and short, keeping a backing role to the swirling of warm guitars played coldly.

Simon Gallup establishes the tone of "Secrets" with a lead bassline that draws a melody and then slides downward to abandon it and joins the newly-entered Tolhurst in the rhythm. Smith, having played short, controlled palm-muted rattling with just enough release to give it clear and pretty tone, takes up the reins, alongside Hartley's keys. Single chords from Hartley accentuate the start, while Smith's playing loosens the muting just enough, while increasing the volume in kind, to give him control. Gallup's playing is minimalistic, Tolhurst's is a heartbeat of kick and very light hi-hat that gives a spine to the track while staying off and behind. Smith's vocals are quiet and almost hidden, a distant, more passionate echo almost a flare that leads back to their whisper. His guitar, though, continues its lead role, briefly wandering up and down chords in dissectionary ways, but never takes the song past the subdued sound it shows so clearly in his vocals.

"In Your House" is Tolhurst's kick at its most heartbeat-y, snares on the offbeat being the attack to counter this. Robert's guitar is all murky single picking, steady and almost mysterious, the lower notes drifting up and down the neck while the higher ones that follow them are almost the same each time. Gallup's bass is at its most active, bubbling up along the heartbeat kicks of Lol. Warping washes and heavily electronic keys dot the track periodically for texture, Smith again seemingly bored in his singing, or perhaps just darkly, callously confessional. The guitar leaves its incessant picking at the same notes only briefly, only a mild shift upward, but one that takes the song on a reasonable sidetrip into a kind of questioning, a wisp of smoke beckoning supernaturally outward that dissolves after the gesture.

A reverberating key sounds--think the Kinks' "Death of a Clown"²--to open "Three", a seemingly random set of  reverberating keys is strewn across it, distant mumbling hiding far behind it. An actual dance-like beat drops in from Tolhurst, the keys continue in their diffuse pattern, the track pounding hypnotically until it clears away in an abrupt electronic noise seemingly like a ball dropped and bouncing lower and lower to short frequency vibration.

Intended as an instrumental of great length, "The Final Sound" is a slightly dissonant clutter of sustained and echoing keys, growing in their low-end murmurings of somewhat disturbing nature, the keys climbing in fumbling fashion, wandering up and down before the volume drops out--the tape ended, and there was no money for another. (Really.)

The lone single from the album, "A Forest" is moody, dark, electronic waves, a cold echo of single-picked guitar slowly gathering up to a slow walk in tempo over it, but rising in pitch just a bit. A soft, unusually high bass lick loops around once, trying to pull the song up. Tolhurst's drum machine like beat pops in, a bass followed by a light snare roll on the second beat, repeated consistently. Robert's guitar returns with a faster (though still economic) version of that first riff, the guitar less dry and far off, curved and warm instead, though it only lasts one run of the riff, the second time going up and then running into a more speedy lead before dropping off. Lightly phased muted chords take over guitar, Gallup's bass bouncing along faster than Lol's drums. Robert sings in the most wonderfully rapid, rhythmic way, perhaps the most immediate and engaging vocal on the album (no wonder it was a single!). Hartley takes the keys up into a sonorous hold, Smith opening the guitar again for a mild crescendo that crashes into his voice's renewed presence. At the end of his last word, his guitar jangles and strums out to an ending that drops drums and a bass spliced to half its beats, the guitar rising and spreading outward and upward and into the ether, leaving the steady thumps of Simon behind.

Rich and entwined guitar chords splay across "M", a panning wash of white noise sweeps in Simon's bass and Lol's light, simple drumming. One of the few instances of lyrical chorus, "You'll fall in love with somebody else/Tonight" is matched to the staccato thud of bass and drum, nodding up and down with both. Smith actually follows his final words in the song with the steady picking of an early rock style lead or solo, which wanders up and down and around until it finally settles on a high pitch it holds nervously, dropping off only with the rest of the song.

The most wonderfully fuzzy bass appear when we come to "At Night", Lol's drums spare, clean, and dry, but the intermittent fuzzy driving riff lending a sort of sneer to them--yet, driving though it is in construction, it's quiet and comes off more as actual "fuzz" than it does a crush of even nihilistic dismissal. Hartley has a few well-placed, reedy keys texturally intertwined with those standing elements, buzzing lightly but with a hint of majesty, or at least gravity, about them, despite their relative lightness. Robert's voice is hiding in the middle of the mix--surrounded by the darkness of night, perhaps--and it brings out the clean guitars, which use their lovely clean jangle alone, but carve a dissonant swathe through the returned fuzzy rumble of Simon. Gallup takes the opportunity to play a plodding rise of pitch through his fuzz, climbing slowly at each measure's new note. This style is taken into a sort of lead at the end of the track, Smith's contrasting clean guitar brilliantly acting as the dissonance to the harsher fuzz. A buzz of electronics hangs over the final moments, even as Lol's drums fade out alone.

The song that has always stuck with me most on the album--perhaps because it's the last one you hear, perhaps because it's the title track, perhaps because its title is apparent in the song, or just maybe because it's so damned good--is "Seventeen Seconds". Lol counts the beats on the hi-hat, alternating snare and bass only at the beginning beat of each measure (seriously, it's unbelievably noticeable in its pace). Smith enters  after five bars, a circling guitar in the languid, part-calloused, part-moody, all downbeat style that he employs throughout the album. Simon gives a little more emotive performance here, his bass line characterized by diminishing bends that eventually become steady eighth notes that continue to build the song up to a full drumbeat from Lol, allowing Simon's bass to return to a melodic role at the same pace. It's a minute and a half before Robert's voice comes in, waiting for the song to reach its full sound before he begins. His words are that of ending, as if recapping the prior tracks on the album, telling us everything to this point was all fated and inevitable. "Seventeen seconds/A measure of life/Seventeen seconds..." he sings, his guitar suddenly energized to emphasize those words. Simon's bass returns to its plaintive bends, Lol's drum slows back to its snails pace, Simon disappears, Robert frays, and we're down, again, to just Lol's crawling beat.

Okay, if nothing else, putting that showstopper at the end of the album was a brilliant move. It hasn't got an expected construction in any sense. Sure, the build up, tear down approach to instrumentation has been done, but the way that Robert sings those last phrases is just--there is nothing extra, no fat, and yet it's also not exactly a hook, or anything else like that. It's just phrases thrown out there, though they have their meaning in context. That they don't actually end anything, but the song also seems to respond to them, appropriately, makes it that much more brilliant. It's brilliant because it's not at all obvious. It doesn't feel designed, yet it feels perfect.

For a band that ended up lush and dreamy and dramatic and maybe even melodramatic, the album is sparse, spare and light. Its tone is what you would expect, whether you know the Cure at a glance, or just by reputation, though it predates the most familiar images of Robert Smith (who wore no makeup, kept his hair short, and wore snazzy, if peculiar, suits at the time). It's been dismissed as "soundtrack-y", but it's not at all. It's minimalist and atmospheric, but it's all creating a mood for an album, not for images or movies or unsung words or anything else. It's a cohesive whole, and a stunningly good one. I may still prefer the likes of Pornography³, but this listen gave me a new-found appreciation for why I always liked this album at least a bit, and never found it boring or iffy. It's really quite good, and an understandable favourite for many (and if it isn't, it ought to be).

  • Next Up: Cursive - Happy Hollow

¹If anyone finds yourself aghast at the title, Robert Smith has "retired" the song for that reason. Of course, it was originally written in reference to Albert Camus's L'Etranger, and had nothing to do with a suggestion or nonchalance about the title's subject. Okay, well, not about Smith's nonchalance anyway.

²Holy cow that feels like a pretentiously obscure reference (in context, at least, because I don't imagine many people associate the Kinks and the Cure beyond "British bands"), but it was what I thought of immediately when I heard it.

³If we remove the formatting, this entire thing is going to read very, very strangely.
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