There has never been a more empty and soulless sounding man in rock music than Robert Smith.
Don’t let the hooks about being in love on Friday fool you; Smith has spent the better part of 32 years crafting songs about heartache, emptiness and his frustration to move past these things with The Cure.
And his results have been varied, lauded as a genius, denounced as a gimmick, flirting with commercial success and always dealing with an ever revolving door of musicians in his band. Yet the one thing that’s remained constant for Smith is that even at his poppiest, he’s always had a heart blacker than any Goth kid’s lip liner.
So, it makes perfect sense that Smith’s bleakness is the subject of 4:13 Dream.
The band’s first album in four years (As well as their thirteenth to date), 4:13 Dream represents Smith at his most intricate, with baroque arrangements, dense production techniques, and forlorn atmospherics.
Right off the bat, the first thing listeners will find with 4:13 Dream is how difficult some of these songs prove to be. The album’s opening track “Underneath The Stars” is an expansive, multi-movement statement that’s positively ethereal. Smith’s guitar resonates in haunting fashion while drummer Jason Cooper provides rolling drums against a background of twinkling chimes, fluid guitar, and Smith’s intricately echoed voice.
Smith has always approached rock music as more of a classical composer rather than a straight rock musician, and “Underneath The Stars” effectively showcases these high-art tendencies. But for all its majesty and beauty, it’s Smith’s sorrow that ties these tracks together. On the morbidly morose “The Reasons Why” Smith sings, “I won’t try to bring you down about my suicide/Got no need to understand about my big surprise…” Propped up against hazily descending guitars and pulsing bass, Smith delivers these lines in the most hopeless of fashions. While other lyricists rely on melodramatic clichés, Smith taps into a yearning and longing with his own writing that comes across as romantic as well as heartbreaking.
“Freakshow” follows similar suite but it’s interesting to note the aggressive undertones that 4:13 Dream takes on as the record progresses. Sporting a funk swagger, clunky cow bell, and spidery guitars, Smith spews acidic lyrics such as, “She turns the sound down/Says “I am heaving”/This is a freakshow/And I am screaming/She spins the world round/I want to stop.”
It’s almost as if Smith realizes that he himself is a victim to much larger forces in the world. Love, sex and fantasy pull his spider-nested head in a variety of different directions and all he can do is go along for the ride.
Nowhere is this clearer than on “The Only One,” the most upbeat track on the record. Channeling past singles such as “Just Like Heaven,” “The Only One” finds Smith being completely swept away by an anonymous lover, against waves of delicately formed guitar lines, dancey shuffles, thick bass and tinker-toy piano melodies.
Listeners will be swept up with Smith’s fragile waver as he sings, “Oh I love, oh I love, oh I love/What you do to my head/When you pull me upstairs/And you push me to bed…” Yet if 4:13 Dream has its flaws, it’s that at times Smith’s brooding takes a toll on listeners. The second half of the album is all purge for Smith and the album could use a few more tracks that pick the energy up like “The Only One” does.
Instead, we’re treated to a set of songs buried under their emotional baggage. “The Scream” sports flurry of messy distortion and hell fire wailing, while “Sleep When I’m Dead’s” sardonic hooks are painful to indulge in. Suddenly, 4:13 Dream becomes less about living through one’s dreams, but more about wrestling with one’s nightmares.
This even affects the music itself at times, as Smith’s doom and gloom over powers some clever hooks. “Switch” is an absolute mess of digitally decapitated guitar lines, boxy sounding drums, and far too many overdubs on Smith’s howling delivery. When the album was first announced, Smith told fans that 4:13 Dream would be a double album; however, there is no way that tracks like the caustic “It’s Over” could sustain enough momentum for an enjoyable second disc.
That’s not to say the playing is poor, “It’s Over’s” punky overtones and scalding guitar work remind us that Smith cut his teeth covering Jimi Hendrix when The Cure first began. However, the end result feels a bit one-sided coming from an incredibly diverse musician. Ultimately, 4:13 Dream is a mixed listen based on Smith’s incessant urge to be so good at casting dark shadows of melancholia over his listeners. There are very few songs on 4:13 Dream that suffer from a technical standpoint.
Yet, some stronger track sequencing as well as a few more tracks that channeled Smith’s coy caprice would have made the disc feel far more even and balanced. Because even in the blackest nights, audiences love it when Robert Smith cracks a small smile, simply it makes all his pain that much sweeter.
Sounds Like: Wish (The Cure), Playing The Angel (Depeche Mode), Siamese Dream (The Smashing Pumpkins)
Key Cuts: Underneath The Stars, The Only One, Freakshow
Click the artwork to sample some of 4:13 Dream for yourself!
Author's Note: This review appears in a recent issue of the Sonoma State Star. As this is the author's own writing and this is his own blog, in addition to holding the position of A&E Editor for the Sonoma State Star, he posts it here with express consent of himself. Duh.