The Cure – The Head On the Door

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was my introduction to the Cure. Well, I was familiar with “In Between Days” and “Close to Me,” but this was the first Cure album I listened to. It was the summer of 1987, so I was two years late, but still – I was 14 years old in 1987. I borrowed the cassette from a girl who was a fellow participant at a two (or maybe four) week teen writing workshop in Dobbs Ferry, New York. We were housed at a private school that I have to assume, from my internet research, is the Masters School. That was also where I discovered the Smiths (by borrowing Louder Than Bombs from the same girl). And I met Ally Sheedy’s mother, who was a literary agent (if memory serves) in Manhattan (well, we all met her, it’s not like she and I had tea together). I hung out a lot with a kid from Denver named Josh, who dipped tobacco, and an Irish-Italian girl named Stacey who commuted every day from Manhattan. Also in the program that year was future author Carolyn Parkhurst. I bought one of her novels by happenstance well into my 30s. Something about her name looked familiar; I did a little research and our ages matched up, so I reached out via email. Voilá – she confirmed that she indeed was at that writing workshop with me!

What I Think of This Album

As far as I am concerned, this is the first great Cure album. I know a lot of Cure fans will take issue with that, but the early stuff is just too oppressively gloomy for me, even as there are individual songs from that period that I like (e.g., “The Funeral Party,” “The Drowning Man”). This album likewise is the first with what I consider to be the classic core Cure lineup:  Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, and Boris Williams (I view Lol Tolhurst and replacements Roger O’Donnell and Perry Bamonte as fungible, neither one individually critical (though I am sure they are all fine human beings)).

Certainly, this was the most colorful, poppy album release by the band as of that time, and saw them expanding their sound and broadening their fan base. Notably, it’s not like Smith abandoned his goth roots – he just found a way to pair up those sensibilities with more accessible sounds. And, with songs like “The Love Cats” and “The Caterpillar” in the rearview mirror, Smith had dabbled in pop before. Accordingly, the shift on The Head On the Door felt organic and respectable. For all the credit Smith is due, though, this album is really Boris Williams’s coming out party. From the introductory tumble on “In Between Days” to his creative work on “Six Different Ways” to the punishing rolls on “Push,” Williams is a star on this.

Beyond these macro highlights, the fact is that the arrangements, melodies, and lyrics of almost each song offer something special. “In Between Days” gives us a New Order-ish two chord structure (i.e., “Dreams Never End”), but with airy keyboards used in a way New Order never has, and with immediate lyrics concerning a regrettable (bizarre) love triangle. Smith deftly incorporates an Asian-sounding keyboard line into the foreboding “Kyoto Song,” with oddly appropriate synthetic percussion hits, and desperately sung lyrics about death-tinged dreams and hangover mornings with anonymous bed partners (or floor partners, as it were). Not wanting to be overshadowed, “The Blood” bursts forth on a bed of flamenco guitar, castanets, and yelps, and the spookiness spikes with a sinister short keyboard refrain. Thompson (I’m assuming) shows off his chops by doing a Paco de Lucia impression on the solo.

My personal favorite song on here – the one I kept rewinding to hear on that cassette in 1987 – is “Six Different Ways.” The fascinating, piano-vamp and synthesized strings intro seems completely divorced from the rest of the song, which is instead a series of keyboard lines and atmospheric, counter melodious pings (though the strings reappear in different form). A huge part of the appeal for young me was the vulnerability of the lyrics and Smith’s vocal delivery; I also like the abrupt ending. Again, Williams absolutely shines on this track. The cascading guitars and pounding toms of “Push” herald a classic; few bands would dare dedicate so much time to an instrumental opening, but I could listen to this forever, the well-deserved, striking centerpiece of the album. Once the band has had its way cycling through the arrangement, Smith gives some faint high-pitched vocalizations before making a more energetic formal delivery. I would give considerable sums to have been in the studio when the “like strawberries and cream” vocal take was recorded.

The sequencer intro, to say nothing of the later-introduced rising guitar line, of “The Baby Screams” is pure New Order, and I don’t see how Smith escapes that charge on this song. That said, the parabolic vocal is pure Smith – “Strike me strike me strike me dead / Strike me strike me dead” is phenomenal. Also, Gallup’s bass line is simple but effective. Speaking of bass lines, Gallup owns the sparkling “Close to Me,” though the percussion is critical (those handclaps!) and of course, the keyboards and Smith’s delivery of (again) sensitive and emotional lyrics are first-rate. This album version lacks the horns of the single.

Relatively lengthy “Sinking” feels like a throwback to the Faith/Pornography era, and it is a perfect closer, ending the album with a sense of gravitas and finality. The supple keyboard washes complement the hypnotic bass, with more Asian elements thrown in at the edges, and Williams again adds some effective fills, all of which serve a simple, direct, and highly emotive vocal from Smith.

There are only two speedbumps on this disc, and they arrive in succession. The best thing I can say about “Screw” is that the distorted bass is like a rusty screwdriver to the gut, but the truth is that this bit of silliness is filler. And the very ‘80s (and surprisingly conventional) saxophone absolutely ruins “A Night Like This,” which would otherwise have been a compelling, anguished ballad.

Kudos to co-producer David Allen for creating space for all the instruments and enabling maximum enjoyment from the careful arrangements (Howard Gray worked on a few of the tracks as well).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Six Different Ways,” though objectively “Push” is probably the best song.

Release Date

August, 1985

The Cover Art

I like this a lot, even the ridiculous font. Vaguely reminiscent of the day-glo parts of the “In Between Days” video, it’s gothic, and disturbing, and slightly funny all at the same time.

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