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Battle of the Bitter Boys

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Morrissey
You Are the Quarry
(Attack)

The Cure
The Cure
(Geffen)

On April 13 the New York Post's gossip page ran a story titled "Clash of the Britons." What followed wasn't a rundown of another sad scuffle amongst the royals, but rather a thumbnail summary of a bitter public feud between--ready for this?--Robert Smith and Morrissey.

It's impossible to proceed without first acknowledging the inherent comic value of the phrase "bitter public feud between Robert Smith and Morrissey." If these two ever take the gloves off and throw down, it'll look like a playground dustup between the editor of the school literary magazine and that theater kid who's into Vampire: the Masquerade. What's more interesting is something the Post only hinted at--that Smith and Morrissey are competing to be the mascot for a generation of aging new-wave babies, and that at some level they're both aware of it. The Post quotes Smith: "I've never liked anything [Morrissey]'s done musically," he says. "He was constantly saying horrible things [about the Cure]. I kind of snapped and started retaliating."

Here's a quick sampling of those "horrible things": In a 1984 interview with defunct UK rock rag The Face, Moz was asked, "If I put you in a room with Robert Smith, Mark E. Smith and a loaded Smith & Wesson, who would bite the bullet first?" His response: "I'd line them up so that one bullet penetrated both simultaneously. . . . Robert Smith is a whingebag." Five years later, in a notorious interview for the British music magazine NME, he tartly asserted that the Cure had added "a new dimension to the word 'crap.'" (Quick, finish this Morrissey lyric: "I will not change, and I will not . . .")

Confronted with the latter quote, Smith fired back: "At least we've only added a new dimension in crap, not built a career out of it."

The principals in this 20-year-old grudge have each released a new record in the past few months. Morrissey's You Are the Quarry came out in May, The Cure at the end of June. At least among people who don't consider both Smith and Morrissey woefully irrelevant, their history of petty sniping has raised the stakes for this particular pair of albums: Which one of these aging postpunk heroes can walk the walk today?

Historically, the burden of proof has always been Smith's. While the music press has often been willing to acknowledge that a Cure record is good, few if any of the band's albums have been declared important. In NME's December 2000 poll to name "The Most Influential Artist of All Time," Morrissey's old band the Smiths logged in at number 10 (of 20) and the Cure didn't place at all. When that magazine ranked the 50 "Greatest Artists of All Time" two years later, the Smiths edged out the Beatles for the number one spot--and once again the Cure was entirely absent. (To give you an idea of what a drubbing this is, the Charlatans, the Manic Street Preachers, and Bez--the dancer from the Happy Mondays--all made it.)

The American press hasn't been much kinder. On Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the "Top 500 Albums of All Time," the Smiths secured four spots, the first at number 216, while the Cure--with three times as many records--netted only two, the first at number 326. Boys Don't Cry, at 442, was beat out by such classics as The Battle of Los Angeles by Rage Against the Machine and Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Truth be told, the Cure has always been easier for critics to hate--you don't see 311 covering Morrissey on the sound tracks to Adam Sandler movies, after all. While Moz has built his persona around dry wit and indirection, Smith has always been blunt and declarative. Morrissey: "If you ever need self-validation / Just meet me in the alley by the railway station." Smith: "Let's go to bed." And for all his preening and pouting, Morrissey has never played up his appearance to the degree Smith has--it's no coincidence that so many Cure reviews have mentioned Smith's hair and makeup. He's made himself into a cartoon, a garish woeful kabuki, to further pummel you with his sadness (in case lyrics like "It doesn't matter if we all die" somehow failed to drive it home).

Where Morrissey was self-aware (in a song like "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful," he winks as often as he sighs), the Cure was laboriously, even embarrassingly straightforward. Morrissey could play tragedy for humor while the Cure constantly indulged in self-serious melodrama. It seemed certain that Morrissey, with his pithy insights, would continue to reward his loyal fans as they grew older--and that Smith, with his hammy theatrics, would end up looking ridiculous to thirtysomethings who'd listened to the Cure in high school.

But it's been nearly 20 years since the Smiths broke up, and neither of those things has happened--in fact you could argue that the opposite has.

Morrissey hasn't made a record since 1997, and if You Are the Quarry is any indication he hasn't heard one since then either. A collection of ponderous, mealy alt-rock that sounds about as dangerous as Deep Blue Something, it was nonetheless greeted by the boisterous praise of critics. Blender doled out four stars, lauding it as Morrissey's "best album since Vauxhall & I." A Mojo review declared it a "charisma masterclass" and ended with the proclamation "Long live the king." This is exactly the sort of thing that persuades the more cynical members of the public that music writers are all on the take.

Few of the reviews say anything about what the record sounds like--an understandable omission, given that on Quarry Morrissey's usually reliable band settles for plodding rhythms and turgid, swampy chords. But as tired as the arrangements are, they don't do half as much damage to the album as the man himself does.

Morrissey used to lay bare society's foibles with the finesse of a fisherman deboning a halibut, but here he seems misguided and desperate. Ninety seconds into the record he sniffs, "America, it brought you the hamburger"--which in addition to being a naff lyric is also technically untrue. Worse yet, he rhymes it with "America, you know where you can shove your hamburger." It's a sad record of a spectacular failure of imagination that the pop genius who wrote "Break Up the Family" is reduced to telling a nation to molest itself with a Quarter Pounder. Equally distressing, he's stripped his sadness of its black humor--he just plops it down on the table like a soggy pillow. To put it another way: Morrissey has become a whingebag.

He's lost sight of the line between self-deprecation and self-pity, and his dewy laments just sound like shameless bids for sympathy. "I've had my face dragged in 15 miles of shit," he moans, "and I do not, and I do not, and I do not like it." The title of this track is, of course, "How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?" No fewer than 9 of the record's 12 songs have Steven Patrick as their subject, a surprising reversal--the Morrissey-as-bemused-observer on Vauxhall, for instance, uses first person on only three tunes (and one of those is "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get," in which the "I" could be almost anyone).

On You Are the Quarry he runs through a litany of offenses committed against him by the press ("You Know I Couldn't Last"), pop culture ("The World Is Full of Crashing Bores"), and God Himself ("I Have Forgiven Jesus"). This martyr complex might seem funny or campy if Morrissey sprinkled his complaints with levity, but instead he relates them with a sobriety that makes Augustine's Confessions read like the screenplay for Old School. "You must be wondering how the boy next door turned out," he says at the beginning of "Bores." Must we? Throughout these lazy performances, he comports himself like a man who believes he's owed a living, and in the end the record amounts to little more than a stern lesson on how difficult it is to be Morrissey. Your job is to sit up straight and feel sorry for him.

Robert Smith is no stranger to self-pity. The Cure's two previous albums, about which nothing especially positive can be said, swaddled his moping in lush, luxurious synths, creating a kind of drowsy, opulent self-indulgence. On the bloated Bloodflowers, Smith surrendered to doleful autobiography, making an entire record about how he didn't want to make any more records.

So it's a bit of a shock to hear the tense, grinding, willfully out-of-tune guitar that opens the group's new self-titled effort. Unlike Morrissey, who's repeatedly said that he doesn't care to keep up with the current musical climate, the Cure seem willing to concede that in 2004 some elements of their customary sound would seem more than a little quaint. Producer Ross Robinson has excised the buoyant, whimsical synths that characterized "Why Can't I Be You?" and "Let's Go to Bed"; instead rabid, snarling guitars run loose over much of the record, giving it a surprising, nervy toughness. The fevered minor chords and razorlike leads intensify the atmosphere of clammy primal fear that's always been one of the best things about the Cure's music, as well as underlining the debt of influence owed to the band by young guitar-rock outfits like Interpol and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. (Not at all by coincidence, Interpol is playing second banana to the Cure on the current Curiosa Festival.) The Cure is the work of five guys who've realized that they do in fact have to earn our attention.

Smith's frenzied, scenery-chewing performance binds the record together. Far from sounding spoiled or bored--and the Cure's discography is littered with moments where he's sounded both at once--he howls and yelps like a man impaled on a wrought-iron fence. He sobs his way through the dour "Anniversary," spits disgusted profanities in "Us or Them," and wails like a lost and lonesome ghost in "Labyrinth." His gusto is such that you can mostly ignore what he's saying--a bit of a blessing, actually. There are no profound observations on The Cure, no hanging gardens or lovecats or heads on doors. Smith's prose is workmanlike, his sentiments accessible and universal: "I can't find myself," "We were so in love," "Death is with us all," "Tomorrow I can start again." This lack of poetic ambition precludes the kind of clunky philosophizing that bankrupts You Are the Quarry--it's easy to forget there are words at all, and instead hear Smith's voice as simply a vehicle for the melodies.

And what melodies they are. The Cure rides on contagious energy: "Taking Off" has the group's sweetest chorus since "Just Like Heaven," and "Us or Them" simmers with the same contemptuous rage and propulsive rhythm as "Fascination Street." This isn't to say the record is flawless, of course. "The End of the World" may be the first three-minute pop song to feel like a five-minute pop song, and many of the guitar tones are so similar that by the time you reach the epic closer, "The Promise," the songs have started to blur into a monochromatic slurry.

But Smith creates something Morrissey never even tries to: the sense that he wants to impress us, that he needs us more than we need him. He brings sweat and conviction to The Cure, while Morrissey offers us only a bored sense of entitlement. I think he probably knows where he can shove that.

The Cure headlines the Curiosa Festival on Thursday, August 12, at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park. See the music listings in Section Three for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kevin Estrada, James Crump.

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