CD Review of The Head on the Door by The Cure

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The Head on the Door
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Rhino/Elektra
Released: 1990
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Consider the position that the Cure was in when the calendar flipped to 1985. The band’s last album, The Top, was a drug-fueled mess of the highest order, with Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst rounding out the “band” with session musicians, all of whom would depart afterwards. The album was so bad that even Sire Records, which had the best taste on the planet at the time (there’s a reason Belle & Sebastian wrote a song about Seymour Stein, the label’s founder), gave up on them.

To use editorial lingo, Sire surely regrets the error.

Eight months later, a harder, better, faster, stronger Cure unleashed what Marvin the Martian would have considered an earth-shattering kaboom in The Head on the Door. The sound was focused but versatile, and Robert Smith’s songwriting had never been so tuneful. The songs are still depressing, mind you, but catchy-depressing. You don’t get much more right-place, right-time for a band, not to mention an entire movement in music, than this.

If you had never heard this album before, and didn’t know its history, you could still spot the album’s three singles upon first listen. “Inbetween Days” explodes out of the speakers with a flurry of drums (ex-Thompson Twin Boris Williams), a bass line from new/old bassist Simon Gallup that would have Peter Hook contemplating a call to his lawyer, and…is that an acoustic guitar? Yes, the punk trio-turned synth pop duo-turned alt.rock quintet had finally embraced what Smith now admits he thought was “a bit of a hippy instrument, not really something the Cure should use.” Smart call, Bobby. The brooding “A Night like This” is the album’s most prototypically Cure single, even though it uses the mother of all ‘80s pop clichés, a sax solo. The biggest surprise, though, is “Close to Me,” a “Hand Jive”-riffing minimalist track that is arguably the lightest thing the band had done to date. The remix would lighten things more, adding a horn section that would open even more doors in Smith’s head (five words: “Why Can’t I Be You”). Enterprising club DJs in the ‘80s would soon realize that this song lent itself to be beat-mixed with George Michael’s “Faith,” provided that those DJs, like me, worked at a club that would allow both songs to be played on the same night.

But unlike most Cure records – no one wants to admit this, but the Cure are much more of a singles band than an album band – the rest of The Head on the Door (the origin of the album’s title is explained in the updated liner notes, but we will not spoil it here) more than holds its own with the singles. Unlike, say, Wish, where there were three no-brainer singles and a bunch of, well, other songs. “Kyoto Song” has, surprise, a Japanese flavor to it, and the following track “The Blood” has an Eastern vibe going on, along with more of that hippy acoustic guitar. “The Baby Screams” is what surely gave birth to Gene Loves Jezebel, but the best non-single track has to be “Screw,” which marries a filthy bass line to a bouncy drum track, while Smith peppers the outro with a bunch of random doo-doot-doo’s.

Okay, so some of you are already aware of the genius that is The Head on the Door, and want to know about the second CD of rarities that Rhino included. Is it worth trading up your original CD for the new one? Well, this new version will undoubtedly sound better than the Elektra version from 1985, but the bonus tracks are pretty hit and miss. Most of the previously unreleased home demos were unreleased for a reason; the home demos last around two and a half minutes, and sound like the kind of thing that Cure fans recorded in their basement after their mom had just grounded them for not mowing the lawn. Heck, the “Inbetween Days” demo is only 85 seconds long, though the demo of “Screw” is interesting in how it features a flanged bass line instead of a distorted one. And while these tracks are surely fascinating to the diehards, remixes would have been one big, awesome spoonful of sugar to help the demo medicine go down. “Inbetween Days” and “Close to Me” were both remixed back in the day, and neither of those mixes was included on 1990’s Mixed Up compilation. Would it have been so much trouble to include them here?

The Head on the Door was as make-or-break as it gets for a band. If this album doesn’t blow up, there is a distinct possibility that the Cure becomes the mope-rock equivalent of Heaven 17 and, perversely, the world is denied the pleasures that are Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration, not to mention Smith’s appearance as a crime-fighting superhero on “South Park.” If most of the reissues that we see these days are of the soulless-cash-in variety, The Head on the Door is the kind of album that begs closer inspection, though don’t waste your time with revisionist history or any of that nonsense. Trust us; it’s just as good now as it was then.

~David Medsker