The Top / The Head on the Door / Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
he Top most definitely wasn’t. Robert Smith says in the liner notes of its reissue (part of Rhino’s ongoing project of remastering and reissuing all of the Cure’s albums in deluxe two-disc editions) that it was basically “the solo album I never made.” In that case, be glad for what he didn’t make (and weep for what happened here), because apart from their recent, sad Xerox-of-a-Xerox-of-the-Cure that was 2004’s self-titled offering, The Top may well be the nadir of their catalog.
The Cure was a mess in 1984, and The Top shows it—but not initially. Opener “Shake Dog Shake” is a real cracker, a classic Cure song in sound, structure, and (especially) lyrics. To wit, it begins:
Wake up in the darkIf that’s not as traditional as Robert Smith lyrics got in the 80s… Musically, it’s matched with swirling guitars, a lurching forwards-and-backwards bassline, and simple, almost tribal drums. “Shake” could’ve shown up on most any Cure album of that decade. As for the rest of it?
The aftertaste of anger
In the back of my mouth
Spit it on the wall
And cough some more
And scrape my skin with razor blades
And make up in the new blood
And try to look so good
“Birdmad Girl” is entertaining enough, with an oddly bolero-esque vibe (thanks largely to some surprisingly strummy acoustic guitar), but doesn’t go anywhere. “The Caterpillar” is a lost-classic Cure single, also based around acoustic guitar but in a completely different context. Perky and fun, it’s a love song for Smith’s “caterpillar girl.” (No one writes love songs the way Robert Smith does, no matter how you slice it.) And…unfortunately, that’s the extent of the good stuff to be found here.
“Give Me It” sounds like the result of a crazed meth binge—cacophony-for-cacophony’s-sake—but it fits snugly on The Top. There’s precious little form or function to the songs here. The same is true on the reissue’s Rarities disc, where even the demo of “Shake Dog Shake” plods. The assorted demo versions (from the studio and Smith’s home), alternate mixes, and a quartet of “live bootleg” tracks add no insight into Smith’s creative process—due in no small part to the fact that most of the material here sounds bereft of creativity itself. The second disc’s one bit of enjoyment comes in the form of the previously unreleased “Ariel,” which with its Casio rhythm track, noodly guitar, and processed moaning sounds like a parody of goth. Even that, though, you only need to hear once.
Looking back, we can call The Top a transitional album and leave it at that, for what came subsequently was an honest-to-goodness marvel. The Head on the Door is the first appearance of what’s considered by many fans to be the “classic” Cure line-up: Smith, Laurence Tolhurst (keyboards), Porl Thompson (guitar/keyboards), Simon Gallup (bass), and Boris Williams (drums)—which endured through 1989, but hit the ground running their first time out. THOTD is the band’s first unqualified masterpiece.
Smith, by the way, is producing all of the Rhino reissues, and you can tell; the remastering job on THOTD is superb—fans need to hear how much better the album, which is a classic, sounds now. “Inbetween Days” and “Close to Me” proved that Smith and company could go pop without losing their identity; “Kyoto Song” adds Japanese touches to their template, successfully; and “Push” and “A Night Like This” are classic chiming-guitar Cure songs, yet somehow more accessible than in years past—as if the pop world caught up to the Cure, rather than the other way around.
THOTD closes with one of their most archetypal tracks, “Sinking.” This is classic (there’s that word again) Robert Smith depressiveness: “I am slowing down / As the years go by / I am sinking,” he intones (with plenty of echo on his vocal), as the icy synths behind him do their best to keep things nice and cold. As a thoroughly depressed teenager, “Sinking” made quite an impression on me and was, in fact, a bit of an anthem; as a much more well-adjusted 30-something, the song still stands triumphantly as one of the totems of the Cure catalog.
As opposed to what appears on The Top’s companion disc, the Rarities (1984-1985) collected for THOTD are not only pretty listenable, they’re often insightful. The first four, each labeled “RS Home demo,” are basically just Smith with a drum machine/keyboard. “Inbetween Days” is one-and-a-half minutes of the song’s primary melody being worked out, while “Inwood” and “Innsbruck” are more fully fleshed-out sketches of songs that never came to fruition; the latter in particular would have been very interesting to hear with a full band, as it’s Smith’s songwriting at its most gothic (none of these home demos have words). 11 subsequent tracks, studio demos, are essentially works-in-progress and of varying degrees of interest; they’re most notable for including four unheard tracks among their number. The disc’s final three songs are solid, if unexceptional, live versions of THOTD’s “The Baby Screams,” “The Blood,” and “Sinking.”
The Head on the Door is, hands-down, superb—and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me is nearly its equal. No Cure studio album better distills the group’s range. Opener “The Kiss” is nearly four minutes of tribal drums, minor-key synths, and guitar squall before Smith steps in, leading the song to its edge-of-a-cliff climax. It’s followed by the sweet and poppy “Catch,” one of Smith’s kind-of, sort-of love songs, built around the great line “I used to sometimes try to catch her / But never even caught her name.”
Overall, Kiss Me tends to be a bit schizophrenic, lurching from one mood (the mannered, somber tone of “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep”) to another (the gleeful pop abandon of “Why Can’t I Be You?”) with no warning. It hardly seemed to matter to audiences: Kiss Me was the group’s first album to crack the top 40 in the U.S. and enduring-classic-to-be “Just Like Heaven” became their first American top 40 single when it scraped its way to #40 in the autumn of 1987. The album’s schizoid nature, however, keeps it from attaining classic status, as do its few tossed-off moments such as the inexplicable “Hey You!” (A song made all the more inexplicable by the fact that it leads into the juicy, wet kiss that is “Heaven.”) At 18 tracks—it was released as a double-LP set—it’s a bit long in the tooth, and could’ve done with some judicious editing. The accompanying Rarities (1986-1987) disc here is interesting for fans but nothing non-fans must hear. (No unheard songs here, either.)
To sum up: ignore The Top, and get The Head on the Door and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me immediately for their incredible remastering as much as for the great music they contain. (It’s also worth noting that the packaging on these reissues is gorgeous, with CD booklets loaded down with photos, new liner notes, and complete lyrics.) The Cure’s mid-80s work is about as fine an example of 80s post-punk/“college rock” as anything that came before or since—and really, what more can you ask for?