The Cure - Mixed Up
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I'll never forget my first exposure to the Cure. It was MTV, damn it all to hell—and the still-goofy video for the still-brilliant "Lovesong." At the time, the only Cure tape stocked by my local "record store" (which was a K-Mart type PA/NJ chain called Laneco) was Mixed Up. I duly bought it, having no idea what the hell it was. Hey, it had "Lovesong" on it. In my youthful innocence I had no idea that I was purchasing the dreaded remix album, the very mention of which inspires fear in the beating hearts of all true rockers everywhere. In particular, I was buying the remix album despised to such a degree that its very name is still a byword for shite amongst the band's hardcore fanbase. “Wild Mood Swings sucks a fat one, but one not quite so fat as the one Mixed Up is still sucking on,” and so forth.
Now, I love the Cure—not despite their flaws, but in full view of and with complete enjoyment of them. In their tempestuous history, the band has released some fine albums. But if I were forced to escape from a burning building and could only manage the time to snatch, say, three discs by the Cure, they would be The Head on the Door, Seventeen Seconds, and Mixed Up. Each represents a phase in the evolution of my adolescence, but each has also been time-tested and found worthy. Seventeen Seconds is the fulcrum of their transition between minimal-pop idiots savant and raincoat-clad gloom merchants, perfect for the sad days of my long, lingering high school years. The Head on the Door is the compromise album—slick pop moves rub shoulders with gorgeous depressive landscapes (the cocaine elegy "Kyoto Song" strongest amongst them), where even the weak songs ("Screw," "The Blood") sound relevant, and the best non-singles ("Six Different Ways," "Push," "The Baby Screams") have served as the backing tracks to transitional moments in my personal life.
But Mixed Up is a horse of a very different color. It captures the Cure at the precise moment they emerge from the chrysalis, the exact moment at which profound self-reflection commingles with pure sensuality. As I departed the culturally vacuous world of a New Jersey high school for the somewhat more stimulating arena of college, Mixed Up provided my early sexual fumblings with an appropriate soundtrack—I was still sad, but I also wanted to get laid. Well, more exactly, I wanted to make out, which is precisely what this album is perfect for. Dancing and making out, preferably combined and intertwined. The aura of teenage sexuality that surrounds Mixed Up has remained pristine all these years because it is never directly addressed in the songs themselves—it merely arises rather innocently from the combination of lush, playful atmospherics and introspective lyrics. Unlike the realm inhabited by the myriad emo eyeliner bands that haunt the corridors of MTV and Myspace nowadays, the Cure's world is one of shadows, erotic shapes suggestively shimmering in the half-light of one's conflicting emotions, rather than grocery lists of girlfriends' faults recited with vitriol.
From the opening mix of "Lullaby"—one of the sexiest songs ever to be a goth club classic—the intentions of Mixed Up are clear. Atmosphere, thickly-layered arrangements and multi-tracking (always strong ingredients in the Cure experience), are to be pushed to the fore. The usual radio treatment employed for singles is to be discarded in favor of maximum studio effects and languorous spacing, mercilessly employed in the service of dub- and dance-derived tactics. The second track, a pre-Trance pudge Paul Oakenfold remix of "Close to Me," drives the point home—strongly hip-hop influenced and unafraid to take in some jazz horns, it remains the best of the many versions available of this song. A full 1:20 into this meticulously-constructed groovescape Robert tells us "I've waited hours for this / I've made myself so sick / I wish I'd stayed asleep today." Far from the nebulous sensuality of "Lullaby" and its "spider-man," "Close to Me" is a song explicitly about waiting for the act of love, and the tremulous movements of the body as it approaches, regardless of whether not it will actually be consummated.
After all, it's not the success or failure of mere love affairs that we're concerned with here, but the attempt to secure a life lived (as Robert tells us a full four instrumental minutes into "Fascination Street") with the ability to "cut the conversation / And get out for a bit / Cause I feel it all fading and paling / And I'm begging to drag you down with me / To kick the last nail in"—stated atop a Zen-like mix that adds layer after layer, lovingly massaging your cerebral cortex with waves of luscious sensation. Life, Robert tells us, is a rather pleasing form of pain. So we might as bloody well enjoy it—or at least have some company. The re-recording of "The Walk" which follows "Fascination Street" ties a propulsive, trancey beat to a lyric of wandering ("We walked around a lake / And woke up in the rain") alternated with epiphany ("I remember everything")—the lost are found, and the moment is all ("in an instant").
The conjunction of their best song about finding love ("Lovesong") with their finest one about being lost ("A Forest") is not to be ignored—it serves like no other transition here, highlighting the balance of contradictory impulses that is the foundation of Smith's songwriting. "Just follow your eyes..." into "suddenly I stop / But I know it's too late / I'm lost in a forest—all alone" into "the girl was never there / It's always the same / I'm running towards nothing / Again and again and again." If "Lovesong" is the victory of romantic love over the dark impulses of self-denial, "A Forest" is the recognition that such love is often no more than a fleeting embrace. The dub-inflected extended remix of "Pictures of You" that comes after is confirmation that sometimes the surface is all that is there—"I've been living so long with my pictures of you / That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel." At least, they are when the heart is broken. But while the direction of the thoughts is dark, the memories themselves are optimistic—"remembering you / Running soft through the night" when you "finally found all your courage to let it all go." While this might be a thing long past, the blame is the narrator's ("if only I'd thought / Of the right words") and the way out of the tunnel is clearly visible—it's followed immediately by "Hot Hot Hot" and "The Caterpillar," two of the most overtly sensual of Smith's songs. "The third time I saw lightning strike / It hit me in bed" he tells us in between "mmm, mmm, mmm"s and Chic-derived funk guitar. Oh, did it now, love? "Hot Hot Hot" is one of those songs I grudgingly accepted as a young, conflicted Cure acolyte, but these days it sounds better than ever—a silly aside, unafraid to revel in a hedonistic moment of sheer, ludicrous bliss. Robert "never went back," he tells us, and nor should we have—but it's a bald-faced lie. He did, and so would we.
Mixed Up was released in 1990 to disdain or indifference. Around the corner: flannel shirts, lax hygiene, heroin, and the assorted extras cast of 70's guitar rock wedded to bad poetry (which owed a good deal to the Cure's own bad poetry). But for a brief moment, a few of us recognized that sad could be sexy, and beauty was something to be desired, not scorned. Mixed Up built upon the heretically anti-punk, anti-rock, doggedly defiant luxurious sensuality of Siouxsie and the Banshees' Peepshow of two years before. Like that velvet-lined masterpiece, it dwelt without remorse in the area between darkness and light, between the unashamed pleasure of the libertine and the insatiable demands of the romantic. Unfortunately, the triumph of records like these and Depeche Mode's outstanding Violator were to be cast aside for yet another return to hairy guitar rock, this time embracing all of the depressive aspects of 80's pop stripped of its sexuality and joi de vivre.
For the army of distortion pedal-wielding naysayers that would follow (R. Smith amongst them if the sonic excrement of 2004's The Cure is any indication), Mixed Up is a typical late-80's aberration—a proper rock band corrupted by that insidious demon pleasure—a regrettable, but necessary step of excess en route to the temple of self-flagellation and denial—a bleak, unforgiving place where the only laugh you are allowed is a knowing, ironic one, and the only way out is suicide or recovery. For myself, Mixed Up was the sign posted at that crucial fork in the road between "Intellectual" and "Hedonist." Despite the protestations of my peers and the soul-crushing humorlessness of the music of the 90's, I was and remain convinced that negativity, depression, and darkness are to be accepted, embraced and acknowledged—then moved on from. They are not a place wherein the heart is meant to forever dwell.