The Smiths Vs. The Cure
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Queen Is Dead, we finally settle the oldest dispute in mope rock.
The Smiths' Morrissey and The Cure's Robert Smith have been at each others' throats since the early ‘80s. Given that both of them were mopey, sexually ambiguous English boys who sang melancholic ballads over jangly guitars, the whole thing must've seemed pretty odd to your average Wham fan.
But if we look closer at the two bands, we can see that one is awesome and one actually is totally lame. We're just divided about which one's which. So today, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead (and also because we've wanted to do this for a while), two Nerve writers will finally settle this debate. May the gloomiest man win.
The Smiths Are Better Than The Cure
I've always loved The Smiths. I've always wanted to like The Cure, and sometimes I actually think I do like The Cure. Danceable post-punk sound, arty lyrics, pop instincts — what could be wrong with that? Then I actually listen to a Cure album and remember why I don't like them. This must be the most monochromatic band on earth. Let's take a look at a classic Cure song, "Plainsong," which opens Disintegration, roundly considered their best album. By the time the vocals come in two-and-a-half minutes into this thing, I've heard the same slow, majestic chord progression for forty-two measures.
The Cure – Plainsong
And now that I've joined him on his blasted, featureless heath, what does Bob Smith have to say to me? Does he have an arresting image? A clever turn of phrase? A sharp insight about the human condition? No, he's got a witless goth cliché that would've embarrassed Lord Byron: "You said, 'And it's so cold/ It's like the cold if you were dead.'"
Why am I here? Why doesn't this guy write songs where anything happens? It's not like these songs aren't pretty; I just wish they were more eventful. (Plain song is right.) Even "Pictures of You" goes on for seven-and-a-half minutes, and that was one of Disintegration's singles, for God's sake.
People who don't really listen to The Smiths accuse them of this same lugubriousness all the time, but compare "Plainsong" to their "William, It Was Really Nothing." "William" bursts in with energetic chords, changes key unpredictably, crescendos; Morrissey sets a scene, introduces his characters, cracks a joke; then it's over. Look at the tonal palette of this song: it's funny, it's wry, it's sad, it's hopeful. And if you started playing "Plainsong" at the same time, Morrissey would be done before Robert Smith even started singing. To paraphrase Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, it takes The Smiths less than two minutes to accomplish what it takes The Cure hours to not accomplish.
The Smiths – William, It Was Really Nothing
Now, you can say I'm stacking the deck here, picking a great Smiths song and an average Cure song. Fair, and there are actually some Cure songs I really like — "Close to Me," "Why Can't I Be You?," "Friday I'm In Love." These are economical pop songs with great hooks; of the last, Robert Smith once said, "People who bought this single are not real Cure fans." Check. — Peter Malamud Smith
The Cure Is Better Than The Smiths
Joke all you want — God knows Morrissey does — but you know what The Cure has that The Smiths never did? Conviction. Where Morrissey can't get through a two-minute single without some wiseass remark, The Cure has the integrity to bring you to an emotional place and stick with it. Their sad songs are sad and their happy songs are happy. And when you're feeling low as a teenager, it feels good to have company — to have music that just sort of envelops you. The Cure is about you; The Smiths are about Morrissey and his colossal ego.
Take "Just Like Heaven." It's pure, swooning emotion; it has no wink-wink to undercut the real feeling. Is there any chance Morrissey would've gotten through writing a song like that without some juvenile, mood-breaking joke? Probably the most sincere he ever got was in "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," and even there he can't resist the goofball "if a double-decker bus crashes into us" scenario. Far more representative is the following track on The Queen Is Dead, "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others," in which Moz takes a beautiful Johnny Marr guitar figure and marries it to one of the most ridiculous, flippant lyrics ever written. It's a perfect distillation of everything that's wrong with The Smiths, and even Marr was horrified.
The Smiths – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
Which brings us to the next point: Morrissey is a dick. He's a preening narcissist who fucked over his own bassist and drummer for their puny royalties; when he lost his court case against them, the judge described him as "devious, truculent, and unreliable." Meanwhile, Robert Smith is a nice guy who's been married to his childhood sweetheart for decades. If you're feeling lonely, do you want his company, or the company of a greedy, self-aggrandizing smartass who thinks even his sadness is better than yours?
And finally, call The Cure monochromatic if you want, but song to song, they actually have a lot more variety than The Smiths. Yes, unlike The Smiths, they manage to stay in a mood for long enough that you actually feel it — but that doesn't mean it's the only mood they have. Disintegration might open with "Plainsong," but it also features the sweetness of "Lovesong" and the creepy come-on of "Fascination Street," among others. Each of those songs is a complete statement.
The Cure – Just Like Heaven
In fact, I think that's what Robert Smith meant about the "Friday I'm In Love" single. He didn't say he didn't want it on the album, right? You can't listen to "Friday I'm In Love" or "Plainsong" and say either is what The Cure's all about. You've got to take The Cure for their bigger picture — a picture that's broader and more deeply felt than anything The Smiths ever quipped onto tape. — Mike DiBenedetto