The Cure – Staring At the Sea – The Singles

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The Cure had gone through three, possibly four, and up to five phases, by the time of this release, and for better or worse, much of it is captured on this comp. I can’t decide whether this album works or not, and if not, whether it even could have. The early days of the band were informed by a spiky but melodic post-punk sound (Phase 1). Then came the darkness (Phase 2). After that was an odd period of uncharacteristic single releases (Phase 3), which was followed by the shiny pop era (Phase 4 (or maybe Phase 5?). I am leaving out however you want to characterize what was going on with The Top (The real Phase 4? Phase 3.5?), which was almost, kind of, basically a Robert Smith solo album and also didn’t really sound like anything that came before or after. Actually, the one song from The Top on this comp sounds more like it came from the weird singles period, and I am inclined to view it as part and parcel of that era of the band’s history instead (so, Phase 3). Anyway, this album was a huge hit and for all my misgivings, I’m glad it exists.

What I Think of This Album

Released in six different formats, and with at least two titles, this is a confusing compilation. It packages together almost all of the band’s singles over its first decade. The CD, vinyl, and cassette editions offer the same 13 songs. The vinyl provides nothing extra. The cassette, arguably the edition to own, adds all the band’s previously unreleased B-sides. The CD, though, tacks on four album tracks, except they are interspersed among the singles and so the running order of the CD is different from that of the vinyl and cassette. To add to the confusion, one of those album tracks is “10:15 Saturday Night,” which was actually a single – but only in France, and for that reason (apparently) not included in the original set of 13 found on the vinyl and cassette editions. The vinyl is titled Standing On The Beach. The CD is titled Staring at the Sea. The cassette gives you the best of both worlds, with Side A titled Standing on The Beach – The Singles and Side B titled Staring At the Sea – The B-sides. I don’t know who was responsible for that whole mess, but it is impressively chaotic. I own the CD, so that is what we are going to focus on.

I really enjoy the early singles, and in particular the stirring bass work of Michael Dempsey. “Killing an Arab” – obviously a retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger – is a disturbing anti-song, taking Camus’s extreme exploration of absurdity and turning it (reasonably) into a nihilistic declaration of meaninglessness (“I’m alive / I’m dead”). Dry as kindling, the arid production is highlighted by the most brittle hi-hat hit ever recorded. I don’t think the “Middle Eastern” guitar figures were a good idea, and it’s a little weird to hear to Smith sing in such a matte fashion. That this song was eventually co-opted by racists is not surprising; it created controversy upon its single (re-)release in 1979, and the Cure put an explanatory sticker on the Fiction version (and had a similar sticker on this compilation album, too). The band has since then played the song live as “Kissing a Arab,” “Killing Another,” and “Killing an Ahab,” but also played the original version, too. 

I think “10:15 Saturday Night” is a terrific piece – jagged and spare. The guitar solo is a frenzied freakout that is a much needed release from the coiled tension that leads up to it. I also dig the coda, which seems to have nothing to do with anything but sounds amazing. “Boys Don’t Cry” is a phenomenal pop song. Much as he would do many years later with “Friday, I’m In Love,” Robert Smith takes what is basically a Tin Pan Alley theme and modernizes it. The stinging guitar lead is great, and it’s rewarding to hear Smith finally start to use his voice in a more expressive manner.

Rounding out the set of early songs is the sneering, derisive “Jumping Someone Else’s Train.” Perhaps a bit lyrically obvious, “Train” is still an engaging blast of teenage anger and superiority. Dempsey plays a fluid but sinister line, and props to original drummer/future keyboardist Lol Tolhurst for keeping things together here. So marks the end of the first phase, and arguably the best argument for owning this album (though this probably means I should just swap it out for Three Imaginary Boys).

After this, things get difficult for me, as the goth era gets its due. God help me, I think “The Forest” is boring as shit. It’s not a bad song – the arrangement is fairly interesting (I love a flanged guitar) and the drum sound is odd but works – but it just goes on forever and the bass part is dull-dull . . . dull-dull . . . dull-dull . . . dull-dull. “Play for Today” – one of the extra album tracks on the CD – is much more my speed, with a great keyboard line and more echoed drums, plus a fine contribution from new bassist Simon Gallup. Neatly claustrophobic “Primary” reminds me a bit of Joy Division, and Smith doesn’t so much sing as half-shout on this dense, thick track, the sound courtesy of the two-bass-no-guitar arrangement, which I FULLY ENDORSE.

I feel like the band is trying way too hard on “Other Voices,” which is even less interesting than “A Forest,” and not a great choice as the third extra album track. On the other hand, there is a ridiculous grandiosity to “Charlotte Sometimes” (which sees a renewed reliance on keyboards) that is no less gloomy than the nonsense of “Other Voices” but wisely amps up the drama. Goth can be tedious or it can be sort of fun, and “Charlotte Sometimes” is the latter. “The Hanging Garden” closes out the dark section of the album, with relentless drumming from Tolhurst and very Grand Guignol lyrics from Smith, as well as an effective use of treated guitars. This song sort of makes me laugh just because it’s so committed to its aesthetic.

The Cure basically fell apart after Pornography (maybe three albums of bleakness wasn’t great for the mental health of anyone involved?), and Smith proceeded to issue a bizarre batch of singles that were fairly alien to everything we knew about the Cure to date. “Let’s Go to Bed” resurrects the angst and anger of the early songs, but the style and sound are . . . quirky. I actually like all the processed elements of “The Walk,” from the cheesy keyboard intro/outro to the hyperactive drum machine to the synthy bass part to the absurd theremin-like sounds. The percussion and synths sound a lot like New Order, if I’m being honest (specifically “Blue Monday”).

I hate “The Love Cats” with white hot intensity, but I will admit I dig the jazzy bass line (this time by Phil Thornalley) and the fake horns aren’t that bad; I guess it’s really the lyrics and cat sounds that I have a problem with. Does he really say “solid gold?” I shudder. Okay, “The Caterpillar” is pretty great (this is the one song from The Top). Andy Anderson kicks ass on the drums and the violin work is a welcome oddity; Smith offers a wonderful vocal take and Tolhurst’s avant-garde piano flourishes somehow coexist with a very poppy melody.

The Head On the Door songs follow, including the “with horns” version of “Close to Me.” Almost any other song from that album besides “A Night Like This” could and should have been chosen as the last extra track on the CD.

The Best Thing About This Album

Fuck it, “The Caterpillar.”

Release Date

May, 1986

The Cover Art

This is obviously not the CD cover (as you can tell from the title). The CD cover is a more closely cropped image of this man’s face. Regardless, a great cover. The craggy-faced gent brings to mind some forlorn lighthouse keeper, watching and waiting and forever alone.

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