Join The Dots: B-Sides & Rarities, 1978-2001 by The Cure (Review)

A microcosm of The Cure’s entire career, highlighting nearly every rise and fall, every stylistic direction, every bold experiment, and every failure the band has ever had.
Join The Dots, The Cure

Like 99.9% of their fanbase, I discovered The Cure during that tumultuous time of life known as “high school.” And like 99.9% of their male fanbase, my discovery involved a girl. In my junior year, a friend of mine (whom, I might add, was the object of a rather deep crush) gave me a dubbed copy of Wish for my birthday. I proceeded to listen to that battered black cassette with an almost religious-like fervor, consoling my teenage angst on the bus rides to and from school with the help of songs like “A Letter To Elise,” “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” and “To Wish Impossible Things.” Even the disc’s poppier moments, such as “High” and “Friday I’m In Love” (the first Cure song I remember discussing with my friends) had a sort of pathos that held me enraptured.

But however much I loved those songs, I found myself really drawn to the Wish b-sides my friend had included on the cassette, songs like “This Twilight Garden” (which remains one of my favorite Cure songs to this day), “Play,” and “The Big Hand.” As much as I enjoyed Wish, these songs seemed far deeper, more atmospheric, and more rewarding than the others. And thus was my introduction to the wonderful world of The Cure’s B-sides.

In the lavish liner notes that come with Join The Dots, a massive collection of B-sides and rarities that spans the nearly 30 years of the Cure’s existence, Robert Smith notes that “The first thing I ever did when I got a new single was flip it over and play the other side. I always hoped the B-side would give me another version of the artist, something as good as the A-side but somehow different. I expected great B-sides from the artists I loved.…” That statement was never truer of a band than it is of The Cure. While the band has always had the reputation of being goth pioneers, of purveyors of fine gloom and doom to disenchanted teenagers everywhere, their B-sides reveal a wildly experimental and creative band whose music has abounded with idiosyncrasies and yet has retained an incredible integrity and consistency for nearly 3 decades.

The first disc of this set covers 1978 to 1987, encompassing albums such as Faith, Pornography, and Head on the Door. Of all of the boxset’s discs, Disc One contains the widest range of styles and genres, with each song finding Robert Smith et al. dabbling in something new and outrageous, it seems. The disc kicks off with “10:15 Saturday Night,” a B-side to “Killing An Arab,” and one of the band’s earliest masterpieces of alienation and romantic longing. However, just 3 tracks later, the band is dabbling in disco on “Do The Hansa,” blending dancey beats with punk-driven guitars nearly 30 years before bands like The Rapture.

“Splintered In Her Head” is one of the more surreal tracks on the entire compilation, with Smith’s forlorn voice barely surfacing from beneath shifting layers of tribal percussion, pulsing basslines, and spectral guitars and harmonica. As such, it’s not surprising that this is a B-side to “Charlotte Sometimes,” one of the most enigmatic and haunting songs The Cure ever recorded.

The Cure’s music could easily be described as schizophrenic, and the next 7 tracks on the disc prove why. Starting off with an early version of “Lament” recorded in 1982 for Flexipop magazine, the stretch of songs includes such downbeat-yet-danceable numbers as “Just One Kiss” (a personal fave) and “The Upstairs Room,” as well as the jazzy “Speak My Language” and the rollicking, deranged “Mr. Pink Eyes.” Recorded after one of the Cure’s darkest periods, these tracks were the result of a conscious decision Smith made to record the most un-Cure-like music he possibly could. And yet even then, there’s no mistaking them for anything but Cure songs.

“Throw Your Foot” is another delirious pop number (again, rather fitting as it’s a B-side to “The Caterpillar,” one of the Cure’s most delirious songs ever), with Smith’s unmistakable voice wailing about with abandon, and “The Exploding Boy” picks up where “Inbetween Days” left off, with its acoustic guitars and driving rhythms. Disc One closes with two more examples of the Cure dabbling in dance music in their own inimitable way. “A Man Inside My Mouth” returns to the sounds of “The Walk,” blending bizarre sexual imagery with funky basslines and synths. “Stop Dead” goes even further, with parts of it sounding like Smith is doing his darndest to channel the spirit of Rick James.

Disc Two captures the Cure’s music between 1987 and 1992, a period when the Cure truly hit their stride and delivered some of their greatest work. In 1987, The Cure released the massive Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me double album. While many Cure fans love this album, my personal reaction is a bit more lukewarm. Still, it contains some of the band’s finest pop songs, including “Just Like Heaven” (their most well-known song) and the saucy, horn-laced “Why Can’t I Be You?.”

While The Cure’s music has always been atmospheric, all the way back to tracks like “A Forest,” the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me era often found the group getting downright psychedelic. While it didn’t work all of the time (indeed, one of my gripes with that album is that it was often too atmospheric and meandering at times), it works quite well on “A Japanese Dream.” A very rhythmic track reminiscent of “Just One Kiss,” it seethes with atmosphere in the form of surging basslines and roiling guitars. Meanwhile, “Breathe” is nothing but lofty, airy keyboards, synth-strings, ringing piano notes, with Smith passionately imploring “Breathe/Breathe on me/Be like you used to be” over top it all.

One of the things that most appealed to me about The Cure was their ability to blend both innocence and darkness, joy and sorrow in their music. True, they’re best known for their darker material, but while such material is some of the most compelling in their oeuvre (Faith or Pornography, anyone?), they’re more than just the lipstick-wearing, pale-faced purveyors of gloom they’re often made out to be. “Snow In Summer” and “Sugar Girl” are fine examples of this.

The former is an unabashedly romantic song and has a certain wide-eyed, innocent sense of love-filled wonder, and yet one can’t ignore the eroticism of lyrics such as “Sleek and deep and salty sweet/You come and close in me/Just like the snow in summer.” The latter sounds as childlike as you can get, with flute-like melodies kicking up a sad little toybox processional, but there’s a certain resignation and poignancy to the lyrics — “I wish I could find it funny/When you never came back/But I don’t suppose I’ll ever know/The how to keep you/Goodbye sugar girl” — that some might overlook.

In 1989, The Cure released what is arguably their masterpiece, the sprawling Disintegration. Dense and atmospheric, it was the summation of everything The Cure had been doing since their inception, and far from being the commercial failure the record companies imagined, cemented their reputation as one of the most influential and visionary bands in “alternative” music at that time. (Heck, even Stan on South Park called it the best album ever.) Therefore, it seems odd that only 4 B-sides from that album appear on this collection. But then again, Disintegration didn’t contain much single material to begin with. Of the songs included, “2 Late” and “Fear Of Ghosts” (both of which are from the “Lovesong” single) are epitomes of Cure B-sides, exploring various facets of the band’s sound in fuller detail.

“2 Late” is easily one of the best pure pop songs the band ever wrote, a 2-and-a-half minute masterpiece that perfectly balanced pop appeal with melancholy poignancy. It’s one of those tracks that exists in a world of its own, containing more depth than it seems to deserve. “Fear Of Ghosts,” on the other hand, is pure despair, channelling any demons that hadn’t been exorcised by Pornography through the band’s updated sonics. It also features some of the most chilling lines Smith has ever written — “And the further I get/From the things that I care about/The less I care about/How much further away I get.”

At this point, the compilation stumbles a bit by including not one but three covers of The Doors’ “Hello I Love You” that the band did for Rubaiyat, a compilation celebrating Elektra Record’s 40th anniversary. The first, a 6-minute “psychedelic” mix, is rather self-indulgent, and is the first of several ill-made remixes that hinder the boxset’s later moments. The second, and the one that actually appears on Rubaiyat, while still not a particularly great cover, certainly displays a good deal more of the (a)typical Cure charm. And the third, an 11-second thrash metal version, is just plain silly, probably intended as a throwaway for only the most anal of collectors.

The material on Disc Three, which chronicles 1992 to 1996, holds a special place in my own heart simply because this was the period when I discovered The Cure (as I mentioned earlier). The 6 Wish B-sides contained here are among my favorite songs on the boxset, and some of them, especially “This Twilight Garden,” are among my favorite Cure songs period. It’s admittedly difficult for me to explain just why that it is, but suffice to say there is something about the darkly poetic imagery and exotic flourishes of “This Twilight Garden,” the resignation in the lyrics of “Play,” and the powerful existential tragedy of “The Big Hand” that resonated within me as a depressed 17-year-old… and still resonates within me to this day.

Disc Three also contains several more covers, including several eyebrow-raising versions of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” and a too-good-to-be-true cover of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” (both of whom were huge influences on Smith growing up). The disc also has several soundtrack contributions. “Burn” (from The Crow soundtrack) is a fine Cure track by any standard and perfectly ties in with the dark mood of the film at hand. On the other hand, “Dredd Song” (composed for the horrible Judge Dredd) is just plain silly, an overly bombastic and orchestral piece that even Smith admits was a bit too bloated for its own good.

Most people I know agree that Wish was easily the Cure’s last consistently good album. Nothing they’ve released since then, be it 1996’s Wild Mood Swings or 2000’s Bloodflowers, brings anything new or compelling to the table. In fact, while listening to both of them, and especially to Bloodflowers, it struck me just how tired the band had begun to sound. Disc Four, which spans 1996 to 2001, highlights that fact again and again.

Actually, the rustiness first appears on Disc Three with the 3 B-sides of “The 13th,” none of which come close to matching the manic quality of that mariachi-fuelled single (which was one of Wild Mood Swing’s few high points). However, as Disc Four unfolds, I find it amazing to hear a band so quickly become, to put it bluntly, irrelevant. Which for The Cure, a band rarely concerned with the musical world around them but one that consciously paved their own way during much of their career, means this disc finds them attempting to become increasingly contemporary and mainstream. In other words, attempting to become relevant. And it just doesn’t work.

This manifests itself in the band’s forays into tepid electronica (“More Than This,” “Possession”), during which they sound more like a band they might’ve influenced than themselves (that, or a self-parody), and the generic techno remixes that pepper the disc. Paul Oakenfold contributes a scratch-laced 7-minute remix of “Out Of This World” that strips the original, one of Bloodflowers’ only good tracks, of its emotional heft. Curve’s mix of “Just Say Yes” sounds like a bad Garbage outtake and Mark Plati’s remix of the classic “A Forest” makes one wish someone like Matt Elliott had been given the job instead. But the worst offender is the 8-minute P2P mix of “Wrong Number,” which reduces the Cure to a big dancehouse act complete with cheesy diva vocals.

Ironically, the best track on the fourth disc isn’t even one of The Cure’s own songs, but rather a cover of Depeche Mode’s “World In My Eyes” which, like the Bowie cover one disc back, finds Smith et al. claiming the song as their very own.

But even with these disappointments, Join The Dots comes off less like an opportunity for The Cure to clean house before moving to a new label (which, by the way, it is) than as a microcosm of their entire career, highlighting nearly every rise and fall, every stylistic direction, every bold experiment, and every failure the band has ever had. And that fact alone makes this a solid recording to own.

It’s a safe bet that many Cure fans, being the devoted types that they are, probably have a lot of this stuff already in the form of bootlegs, mixtapes, 7-inches, and *gasp* illegal downloads. And there’s quite a bit that’s missing, such as “Carnage Visors” (a 27-minute instrumental that served as a B-side to the entire Faith album, and which still doesn’t exist on CD) and the instrumental Lost Wishes EP, to name but a few. But for those like myself, who consider themselves fans, just not rabid completists, this boxset is practically pure gold, compiling many essential recordings into one package.

I’ve always believed this, but after having spent the past 2 weeks immersed in Join The Dots, I believe it even more strongly now: despite all of the countless bands that have been influenced by The Cure in all manner of genres including goth, industrial, shoegaze, punk, and indie-rock, noone will ever come close to being “the next Cure.” Noone has ever come close to copying their sound, though its influence can be heard in all of the “hot” indie bands right now (e.g., Interpol, The Rapture). They’re still one of the few bands that people, even indie types, will dismiss as too weird. And yet they remain one of music’s most unique and unassailable groups, occupying a niche that is their’s alone, one where they’re perhaps the closest the indie/alternative scene will ever come to having a musical institution of its own.

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