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"SINISTER PSYCHEDELIA THAT BURROWS UNDER YOUR SKIN"
Album: The Top Artist: The Cure Release Date: May 1984
*** Okay it’s tenuous link time people! My Grandad died two years ago today and in my eyes at least, he was the Tops - so I dedicate my final music review for the moment, to him. Never forget your Grandparents because you wouldn’t be here without them!
Upon its release in the spring of 1984, The Cure’s 5th studio album - “The Top” - was received with widespread bemusement and universally slack, open jaws from the music buying public. More a sinister, schizophrenic journey into the mind(s) of a troubled, yet talented young singer-songwriter than a coherent set of songs, “The Top” is, to all intents and purposes, a solo album. Scary-haired Robert Smith produces the record, plays virtually all the instruments and writes every word and note on the album; and a manful job he does too!
The background to “The Top” is worth mentioning. Smith wrote the songs whilst he was touring as part of The Banshees and at the end of a madly busy year, he came to finally record “The Top” (whilst exhausted) after being ordered to rest completely by a doctor. Hot on the heels of the throwaway pop project that was “Japanese Whispers”, most people expected a relatively lightweight electro-pop album from The Cure in 1984. The attendant single release (“The Caterpillar”) was an innovative piece of summery folk-pop but by no means set the tone for its parent album.
Opening track “Shake Dog Shake” is harrowing listening. A darkly psychedelic voyage inside the subconscious mind of Smith, it came resplendent with some sinister, yet highly original lyrical content;
“Wake up in the dark The aftertaste of
anger in the back of my mouth…”
“Shake Dog Shake” is musically a dense, disturbing offering – layers of distorted (yet relatively quiet) guitars provide the backdrop for Smith’s pained vocal. A prominent, yet pedestrian drum-pattern adds little to a fairly impressive track that certainly pins the ears back.
Track two couldn’t be further removed from the opener. Clean acoustic guitars and a simple, plinky-plonk keyboard are the order of the day on “Birdmad Girl” – a track which on the surface is upbeat and funky but contains a bleak lyrical message;
“She flies outside this cage Singing girlmad words I keep her dark thoughts deep inside As black as stone And mad as birds”
With its ease of accessibility and its wonderfully simple hooks, “Birdmad Girl” is one of the best offerings on “The Top.” Smith plays every instrument himself, except for the danceable drums and nails down a wonderfully slick “better than any bassist could play” bass line for good measure.
After the Hendrix-influenced “Wailing Wall” – a song at the polar opposite end of the musical spectrum to Bowie’s elevator-music offering “Weeping Wall – we move on to the harrowingly intense and raw “Give Me It”; a song so full of contempt and (self) loathing it is hard to digest. Despite its rant-type mantra and savage (yet highly polished) drumming, “Give Me It” is an impressive, psychedelic flavoured track: although it’s hard not to feel violated in some way after listening to it.
Another change of pace and mood comes with the resigned lethargy of “Dressing Up” – an amiable, yet fairly non-descript wannabe B-side (although Cure B-sides are often better than the A-sides) of a song. The darkly psychedelic pop-feel is furthered on “The Caterpillar” and the wonderfully zany “Piggy In The Mirror.”
Said Pig in said Mirror is as daft as a hamster playing domino’s! In fact it’s dafter…think of Moira Stewart arm-wrestling a drunken Boris Yeltsin in Dame Maggie Smith’s utility room. That’s the sort of territory “Piggy In The Mirror” resides in. A curiously inimitable vocal, which is in equal parts comedic and tragic, serves both the goth-tinged verses and the cheeky, upbeat chorus equally well. Smith’s lyrics are once again bizarre and deranged;
“Flowers in your mouth And the same dry song The routine from laughter land Sixteen white legs and a row of teeth I watch you in secrecy”
A beautiful Spanish guitar solo breaks up the two halves of a song, which is as notable for it’s musical innovation as it is for it’s inherent madness. After the dizzying madness of “Piggy…” comes the regimented and dirge-flavoured “The Empty World”; a more one dimensional and traditional Cure song. The track concerns itself with typical Cure themes of isolation and loss and boasts one of Smith’s more restrained, yet polished “voices” on the album.
With track nine we are back to Mushroom sandwich-eating territory (i.e madness). “Bananafishbones” is as daft, brilliant and flawed as you would expect. Smith’s clipped post-punk guitars underpin things, whilst a wonderfully throwaway “do do de do” backing voice haunts rather than comforts. If the earlier quirky tracks hinted at persistent chemical abuse, then “Bananafishbones” all but confirms it. Smith himself has reflected back on the period before the recording of “The Top” as allowing him to “go mad for a time” – something of an understatement.
The nearly burnt-out frontman had been in three bands (The Cure, Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Glove) for much of 1983 and his extensive workload was eventually taking it’s toll on him physically and mentally. The mental strain of 1983/84, allied to Smith’s fondness for recreational escapism lead ultimately to the recording of a darkly intense album. The Top’s density and wackiness can also be explained in part by Smith’s ongoing fascination with mental states and the darker aspects of the human psyche.
Title track “The Top” certainly explores some of the darker aspects of cerebral activity; in popular music history a more personal account of paranoia I’ve yet to hear. A musically bare and slow-paced number, “The Top” is a fitting conclusion to the album. A stark piece of psychedelic minimalism, it is as notable for it’s slick production as it is any particularly memorable musical moments. Smith’s curious phrasings continue and it is lyrically, as much as musically, that the song (and album at large) unnerve;
“It’s Jesus brilliant You used to laugh Walking these gorgeous blocks This top is the place where nobody goes You just imagine it all”
So there you have it. A further journey into the dark side of popular music! Whereas the Manic’s “Holy Bible” explored the darkness of humanity collectively, “The Top” is a more personal, yet no less harrowing journey into the human soul. Fraught, flawed and inconsistent, “The Top” is as it’s artwork suggests - dark behind the light exterior - or black and blue behind the orange and pink, in the case of the artwork. For all it’s difficulty and lack of continuity, The Cure’s fifth studio album is a daringly expansive, and at times wonderfully executed, experiment. The stylistically polar opposites Rober Smith deploys set the tone for the equally flawed, yet brilliant “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me” album and some latter day Cure output. However, in its own right, “The Top” is a captivatingly intense, if perplexingly moody Long-Player. (*8)
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Rock & Pop
Producers: Robert Smith, Chris Parry, Dave Allen.
Uncut - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[The album] finds Smith altering his voice to express himself differently in song for the first time." Uncut (p.102) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[The album] finds Smith altering his voice to express himself differently in song for the first time."