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Holy Hell! Wild Mood Swings Turns 20

Holy Hell! Wild Mood Swings Turns 20

Wild Mood Swings is much better than you remember and much better than some would have you believe.

It’s hard to point to the Cure’s oeuvre and find a bad album. There are some records that take darker thematic turns than others (Faith), some that have a certain ebullience (Kills Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me) and others that connect ability and ambition flawlessly (Disintegration). Yet, among certain Cure fans Wild Mood Swings remains long player non grata. Sure, it doesn’t have a single that rises to the accessibility of “Friday I’m in Love” or “Love Song” and for those who came to the Cure party in the wake of those tracks no doubt would have felt some disappointment when tuning into “Mint Car” or “Club America.”

The record is out of step with the musical trends of the time. The Cure has long been a band more intent on setting trends than chasing them, so it makes sense that there’s not much that marks Wild Mood Swings as having emerged in 1996. There are no distressed Nine Inch Nails-isms, nothing gleaned from Moby or the Orb. American grunge music seems not to have raised any eyebrows among the band. There’s also no sign of Robert Smith and friends picking over the bones of the past. No wink or nod to Pornography or The Top, though it’s evident that this is a record from the freakin’ Cure.

Wild Mood Swings marks the start of a new epoch in a long and winding saga. The group had experienced a run of highly successful LPs, culminating in 1992’s Wish and the omnipresent “Friday I’m in Love.” As so often happens in the wake of major chart success there was upheaval in the ranks. Drummer Boris Williams vacated his throne in 1994 after a decade-long run; guitarist Porl Thompson took his leave for around the same time and bassist Simon Gallup, an undeniably integral part of the classic Cure sound, exited briefly. For a time only Smith and guitarist Perry Bamonte remained from the Wish iteration.

What impact did these personnel changes ultimately have on the finished record? It’s difficult if not impossible to say. Though the Cure functions well as a band, there remains a strong sense that Smith’s voice and guitar, along with Gallup’s playing, remain critical defining features. Another essential quality seems to be a high caliber of songwriting. Still, the arrival of drummer Jason Cooper once sessions for Wild Mood Swings were underway breathed a different life into the group. Cooper, who remains on board to the present, is arguably the best drummer the Cure has had. Roger O’Donnell, a man whose sense of musical adventure has been deeply under-appreciated over the decades, returned for the sessions as well, lending another set of hands that had a connection to the band’s peak commercial years.

There is no attempt to replicate the sound or success of material such as “Just Like Heaven” or “Lovesong” on Wild Mood Swings. Though there’s no outright abandonment of the singles market, there’s a wealth of material that doesn’t exactly beg for heavy rotation on either radio or MTV. (At least as either existed in 1996.) Still, many classic Cure elements remain: guitar figures that are more intricate than they might first seem; often dark and almost always enigmatic lyrics; music that evokes a variety of moods and emotions; vocals that are always exacting in their emotional intent; and, maybe most importantly, a search for some kind of truth.

“Want” opens the record with a slow-burning intensity and doesn’t so much resolve as it stops, leaving the listener wondering what’s coming next, what to feel, how to think. “Club America” gives us one of Smith’s best vocal performances on any Cure record. Although he’s always been a performer capable of creating an intimate emotional connection with the listener, he does so with an uncommon directness on that track, as he details, with some apparent resignation, the darkness that lives at the edge of fame and success, the depths of the vacuous abyss that accompanies both consumerism and celebrity. It’s delicious, biting and exactly the kind of thing one isn’t supposed to say in polite company. His vocals shine, as well, on the gorgeous “This Is a Lie.” It pokes at the façade of happiness found in suburban life as ordinary people march in workaday fashion toward the inevitability of death.
Other pieces, such as “Strange Attraction” and “Mint Car” come off as celebratory, capable of working the listener into a bit of pop music reverie not unlike the radio hits from the band’s previous two studio outings. Neither tune goes to the obvious place musically. “Mint Car” should explode into a chorus 3000 times bigger than the one it arrives at. It should also strain a little harder at platitudes and clichés. That’s if the intention was to have a hit. Instead, it’s a tune that seems comfortable being a happy pop song that lives in the deep grooves of what would become an under-appreciated record.

Not everything on the record sits well in history. “Return” is a surprisingly hurried affair in a catalogue long on slow-builders. It’s one of the few of its kind here, though. “Gone!” could have been a radio staple and the moody, unexpectedly heavy “Numb” is full-on formidable whomp. Meanwhile, “Trap” remains another of the most powerful entries in Cureland and one that deserves more frequent live airings.

The live arena is the main place to hear the Cure these days. As of this writing it’s been eight years since the release of 4:13. Listening to Wild Mood Swings and, really, anything in the Cure’s rich discography, it becomes apparent that that is entirely too long. The group debut some new material during its recent trek across the United States and that material rests nicely with all the stuff we’ve come to love from this band since the late 1970s. The Cure is one of those rare animals that’s capable of reaching parallel heights on the stage and on the turntable and taking listeners to unexpected but always rewarding places. You can even find those moments and those places on a record such as Wild Mood Swings, a recording that is much better than you remember and much better than some would have you believe.

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