The Cure Delivers Career-Spanning Set at New York's Madison Square Garden

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Robert Smith of The Cure performs at Madison Square Garden on June 18, 2016 in New York City.  

Late Saturday (June 18), as The Cure began its third encore in a show marking the start of a sold-out three-night run at Madison Square Garden in New York City, bandleader Robert Smith joked about how nobody understands his stage patter.

"Honestly, I speak very f--king clearly," said the 57-year-old singer, songwriter, guitarist, and between-song mumbler. Luckily for him, no one goes to a Cure concert in 2016 hoping to hear quippy little intros to "Friday I’m In Love." A lot of fans don’t even come for "Friday I’m In Love," though even B-side-prizing diehards can’t deny the power of that song, or "Just Like Heaven," or any of the other pop crossovers found throughout this iconic U.K. post-punk band’s catalog. Most of the big singles turned up in Saturday’s set, and they’re all part of what makes the group so different from The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, and all the other mopey British acts it’s frequently compared to.

The real reason to catch The Cure on this trek, its first major tour since 2008, is the confidence with which Smith presides over his brand. If he’s Hugh Grant on the banter tip, he’s Laurence Olivier once the music gets going. Rocking his trademark tangle of black hair and baggy black-on-black goth-casual attire, Smith opened the show with “Plainsong,” “Pictures of You,” and “Closedown”—the first three tracks on 1989’s twinkling, thundering masterwork Disintegration

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On those songs, the washes of synth, rumbling bass, and icy wind-chime effects set dramatic scenes for Smith to glide through with vocals every bit as grand. As much as he gets slagged off as a whiner, he sings his saddest, most lovesick tunes with passion and assuredness. It’s like the older he gets, the more he realizes how right he was to marinate in the heavy feelings of his 20s and filter them into the stately, atmospheric tunes that still make up the bulk of his sets.

But that’s only part of the experience. Before The Cure could start making crystalline stadium rock, it had to feel its way into pop music with tracks like "In Between Days" and "A Night Like This"—two standouts from 1985’s The Head on the Door performed on Saturday. The latter found lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels—a newish member whose stark white hair and American blood make him a kind of photonegative of Smith—ripping one of the night’s few solos. As the band jumped from era to era, flitting from the vaguely Middle Eastern 1987 rocker "Like Cockatoos" to the antsy 1985 psychedelic jungle jam "The Caterpillar" to the early disco-punk bumper "The Walk," the group functioned very much as an ensemble. And not, it must be said, an especially lively one. 

Outside of moments when drummer Jason Cooper was really rolling the tom-toms—most notably on those Disintegration cuts—the only guy worth consistently watching was bassist Simon Gallup. Stalking the stage with bare tattooed arms, rockabilly hair, red neckerchief and bass at knee level, Gallup used his body to express the vigor that Smith put forth in far subtler ways.

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Gallup’s movement was especially welcome on some of the filler cuts that made the 32-song show longer than it probably needed to be. "Burn," from The Crow soundtrack, is too meandering to warrant encore placement, and the two tracks from the group’s most recent albums—2004’s self-titled effort and 2008’s 4:13 Dream—make for good bathroom breaks. Smith isn’t infallible. After 13 albums and nearly 40 years, he’s produced a body of work filled with plenty of failed experiments and ill-advised entry points for newcomers. All of this plays to his favor, making him seem more sincere and less calculating—even if he’s known as something of a control freak.

The band ended, as done throughout this tour, with "Boys Don’t Cry," a song that says two things: It’s OK to feel things, regardless of outdated gender norms, and it’s OK to close a show with a totally obvious crowd favorite that even non-fans know. Although the 2016 live version is way slower and less urgent than the 1979 recorded one, it feels as important as ever. There’s no missing what Smith is trying to get across.