his assignment seemed to be a backhanded blessing. A poisoned chalice waiting to be filled. How could I be expected to lucidly express thoughts about the band that had vanquished all pretenders to the rickety throne of my formative musical years, and still remained entrenched as firm favourites? Twenty-five years of critical discussion had accumulated between the original release and this reissue. Could I genuinely add anything of note without coming across as another desperately backcombed fanboy? Most of all, was it a problem that I would forever associate this record with A-level revision sessions about the Stalinist purges of 1930s Soviet Russia?
Then it struck me. Tempestuous bouts of self-doubt were as close to the ideal conditions for reviewing a Cure record as I was ever likely to get. Fate was smiling once again, even as she poked me with the insecurity stick.
In truth I wasn’t too impressed by that expectant first listen; sat on the floor, surrounded by ring-binders and in serious denial about the impending inevitability of some exams which were claiming that they could permanently shape my life for good or ill. The Head on the Door was more my style at the time; quirky Cure with added pop and a bit of sax. That’s what I wanted to hear. Disintegration had got its almighty claws of mid-life crisis despair into me too—and it sounded so much grander than this (probably due to the fifty nine layers of carefully concentrated reverb, but anyway). By comparison, Seventeen Seconds was rather weak and unassuming. Sure, “A Forest” was classic, but I could barely hear the vocals on the rest. And what’s all this instrumental keyboard nonsense?
Obviously I now know better. Songs which I had previously dismissed as overly feeble, I gradually began to appreciate for their fragility. Just as I found Disintegration to be a bleak yet often beautiful winter, Seventeen Seconds slowly came to represent the last leaf of spring before the raw onset of autumn; feelings which seemed to be mirrored by the cover art—stark, spindly trees, deftly muted in a single sweeping blur. This projection of a distorted barrier, forcing a sense of distance between performer and listener, is the album’s strength. A shoulder is being turned, and it’s cold. “It’s just the way I feel that matters / Tell me I’m wrong / I don’t really care” leaves us in no doubt that there can only be one player in this piece, and he’s going to be calling the tune. Invoking Camus (“M”) and Kafka (“At Night”) further deepens that sense of introspection—which is cavernous even by Robert Smith’s standards.
As it turns out, those keyboard pieces (“A Reflection,” “The Final Sound”) weren’t quite so irritating after all, and serve as exceptional introductions to what I assume were previously sides one and two of the original vinyl format. Although this divide has been somewhat diluted in CD form, the latter composition still provides both an appropriately brief halfway marker in the proceedings and a (semi-accidental, as the new sleeve notes reveal) seamless lead in to “A Forest.” Instead of feeling slightly cheated by the total album play barely touching thirty five minutes, it actually seems meticulously planned when compared to bloatfests like Wild Mood Swings. Anyway, there’s also an entire bonus disc to chew on these days.
Which brings us neatly to the usual reissue ... issues. This album was in need of remastering more than most (previous CD pressings having seemingly been recorded by leaving a microphone vaguely near a tape deck), but I lived in fear of what might happen if ‘remastering’ turned out to mean ‘making a bit louder.’ The crucial sense of fragility could have been cackhandedly lost in one fell swoop. Fortunately, the already minimal arrangements are simply starker this time around, and carefully cleared of all extraneous muffling. “M” still drops out a little during the ending segment, which should probably have been sorted out; but at least it no longer sounds like the original recording was used as emergency hamster bedding and then replayed slightly too slowly.
The majority of the obligatory rarities disc consists of live performances from the appropriate period. Whilst this is certainly no bad thing and makes perfect sense in context of the current reissue process, knowing how “A Forest” would later morph into the kind of epic that appears on In Orange, it’s hard not to feel a little let down by the early rendition present here. Home demos are restricted to a couple of rough-and-ready tracks; this is possibly traceable to various stories about boxes being left (and warped) by Mike Hedges’ washing machine. The true gem of this era though, is the “I’m A Cult Hero” single (twinned with “I Dig You”); an experiment recorded prior to the album with postman Frank Bell, to see if Simon Gallup would fit into the Cure ethos. Happily, it is present and correct in both original and live forms.
What to make of all this, then? Seventeen Seconds is, as it ever was, an excellent opening chapter in the pseudo-trilogy of gloom that would continue with Faith and Pornography. However, I feel compelled to judge the package on the merit of its reissue rather than the pure strengths of the album. For once, the remastering job was actually needed and makes the older CD pressing somewhat obsolete—making this a potentially worthy purchase for even casual fans. Extras-wise the bonus disc is content to confidently cover the necessary bases without getting especially in-depth. Much like my history exam all those years ago. So this gets the same grade.