After 12 albums and having a defining role in the formation of goth rock and new wave, the Cure are no strangers to self-cannibalization. When you’ve come to define feelings of loneliness, shattered love and alienation for generations of kids and their kids, it has to be damn hard to avoid caking on the lipstick and eye shadow for another go-round on the depression train.
And so we have 4:13 Dream, the Cure’s 13th album and the first since 2004’s self-titled, minor return to form. The Cure got rave reviews and made an unlikely late-period chart appearance mostly because it wasn’t terrible, but 4:13 Dream, won’t be given the same benefit: The band’s shimmering guitars have been replaced by a dry, AOR-leaning sheen that presents Robert Smith’s retread tales as straightforward rockers that lack an emotional undertow.
Things start promising: Opener “Underneath the Stars” is a totemic anthem that seems like it constantly builds over its languid pace, exploding periodically in bursts of feedback and reverb. It’s the kind of song the Cure made their name on.
It’s tempting to call “Underneath” the album’s lone highlight, but it’s not so much that the other songs are bad, it’s more like they just all feel old and tired. Part of that could be blamed on producer Keith Udden’s insistence on creating a live sound for the band as opposed to relying on studio tricks. But most of the blame falls at Smith’s feet.
The guy still sings about suicide (“The Reasons Why”), feeling like a freak (the pretty bad “Freakshow”), not wanting to quit (“Sleep When I’m Dead”) and ultimately finding happiness despite some shitty times (“The Hungry Ghost). And those are fine topics, topics Smith has been pretty damn good at. But at the same time, the guy used to write songs about those same topics when he actually had those problems; nowadays, he’s living a peachy keen life as a rich guy, not a loner who really is alone. Not that young people have a monopoly on feeling alone, pissed or depressed, it’s just that a different Smith this late in the game would be welcome.
The album ends strong with the appropriately titled galloper “It’s Over,” a song where Smith’s brother in-law, guitarist Porl Thompson, is the true star — his guitar shredding comes in and out of focus, providing the song with its momentum. It’s perhaps the one case where an emphasis on technical performance over song craft actually pays off, and it may serve as a bellwether for where the band see themselves going for album 14.
In the end, 4:13 Dream is nothing but a solid to shaky late period album from a band that’s due can’t really be understated. Sure, now they’re fodder for the joke yellers of I Love the ‘80s, but they used to be a really great band. A band that only intermittently shows up here.