Watching the Cure’s Robert Smith shyly break into a broad smile – as he often did throughout the band’s invigorating, muscular and celebratory three hour gig at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night – is a disarming experience, as surprisingly endearing as the crimson lipstick that rock and roll’s most durable Pierrot still stubbornly slashes like a battle scar across his mouth. But as Smith, black-garbed and bramble-haired, gleefully waltzed up the venerable landmark’s steep side mezzanine passages during the first of three expansive encores, yowling and vamping his way through ‘Close to Me’ and the new ‘Freakshow’ with almost Chaplinesque abandon, it became evident that something palatable has shifted for the 49-year old frontman. On the cusp of the Cure’s 32nd year, it seems that Smith has fallen madly in love with his own band again. Since stripping down to a lean quartet again with the return of original guitarist Porl Thompson, veteran Cure bassist Simon Gallup and longtime drummer Jason Cooper, who joined in 1995, Smith’s fairly recent banishment of keyboards and his rapprochement with taut, guitar-gnarled, punk-gnashed arrangements has infused the band with a bruising virility that effortlessly surpasses far younger Cure acolytes, like The Killers, Interpol and Black Kids.
The band sharpened and reinvigorated even the most brooding tracks in their 35-song set this evening, like ‘The Hanging Garden’, the Albert Camus-inspired ‘Killing An Arab’, or ‘One Hundred Years’ – which was accompanied by a bleak photo montage of historic wartime horrors and genocide – with a shimmering, obscene beauty amid the lyrical vapours. Fierce, deep album cuts like ‘Kyoto Song’ or ‘The Baby Screams’ stood eloquently next to sweetly rambunctious and melancholy hits like ‘In Between Days’, ‘Pictures of You’, and ‘Just Like Heaven’ with Smith and his bandmates segueing vigorously from crackling, wailed ripostes of despair to near-despair to bemused euphoria.
All of this good humour, buoyant musicianship and renewed faith bodes well for the 13th, still-unfinished and untitled Cure album expected to drop in September. Each of the unveiled new tracks – like the ebullient, post-coital ‘The Only One’, the grungy croon of ‘Perfect Boy’ and the jittery ‘Sleep When I’m Dead’ – recall the smart craftsmanship and chiming chord progressions of vintage Cure, but Smith’s take is fresh and pleasingly unkempt, shying firmly from nostalgic retreads.
As always, it’s the kohl-smudged, unlikely romantic figure cut by Smith – his ruminative, layered guitarwork, shattered confessions of mortal embarrassment and futility, and vulnerable sob of a voice cutting through the ice of endless heartbreak – which has made the Cure such an incomparable, seductive blend of violently happy agony for three decades. After Smith led the marathon set to a stunning end with the ferocious and transcendent ‘A Forest’ and ‘Forever’ he traipsed off stage with the band, glancing back over his shoulder at the frantically cheering crowd, begging for a fourth encore. Smith paused and teased, as if momentarily contemplating a return and then drifted away once and for all, perhaps realising that this entire night had been one, long, triumphant comeback for the Cure.