Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 15: The Cure, "A Forest"

Artist: The Cure
Song: "A Forest"
Album: Seventeen Seconds
Year: 1980

As punk rock began to largely dissolve into a wide range of new styles and sounds in the final year of the 1970's and the early part of the 1980's, it was often the mood and angst of the punk spirit that resided within these new forms.  The generally detached, often darker side of musicians was becoming quite popular in all forms of music, and this constituted much of the "post-punk" sound.  Strangely enough, there were a few bands that were present during this era that managed to transition into the more pop-fueled sound of the 1980's, and in at least one case, they are almost completely forgotten for being associated with this earlier movement.  Though many wrongfully peg them as a part of the 1980's "jangle-gloom" movement in the UK, The Cure were actually making music as early as 1976, releasing two of their finest albums before the last remnants of "true" punk called it quits.  It is due to this reality that one must look at their entire catalog in a slightly different light, as in many ways, they were innovators of sound, though due to the time when they gained commercial success, many incorrectly assumed they had derived their sound from certain bands, as opposed to being their contemporaries.  Though The Cure certainly had a few memorable hits, there many not be a more enduring song from the band, or better representation of their unique sound than what can be found in their 1980 single, "A Forest."

Truth be told, when it comes to creating a moody, sparse musical arrangement, few bands from any point in history are on par with The Cure, as they quickly proved that much like the punk movement could create energy and angst within a limited musical structure, they could do the same within the world of slower, more somber mood.  In fact, "A Forest" may be the most stripped down sound the band ever put forth, and yet due to the way that they play, and the overall tone they create, the song is almost instantly captivating.  It is the way that the synthesizers of Matthieu Hartley seem to quickly spin and bounce in the background that is the core of the song, and yet at the same time the way that the instrument is utilized is a far cry from the more upbeat and brighter sound that would dominate the music of much of the decade.  The concentration on tone and subtlety here is mirrored in the guitar of Robert Smith, as the "goth" feeling in his playing would become much of the influence for an entire generation of performers.  Rounding out the band is the rhythm section of bassist Simon Gallup and drummer Lol Tolhurst, and the almost skipping sound they deploy has a fantastic tension that makes "A Forest" sound and feel like nothing else being released at the time.

While they are in many ways far less prominent than on a majority of the songs of The Cure, the vocals of Robert Smith are as good and powerful as ever.  It is on songs like "A Forest" that one can appreciate his understanding of the idea that it is often where you don't sing that creates the true mood and impact of a song.  However, there is no question that Smith possesses one of the most distinctive voices in all of music history, as the uniquely sorrowful cry that he brings to each line sounded just as good at this early point in his career as it does to this day.  Yet it is the mood and emotion which Robert Smith conveys on "A Forest" that is perhaps the most important aspect of the song, as it simultaneously compliments and contrasts the music over which he sings.  While he is certainly in the same overall mood as the music, the sound and pace with which he delivers the lyrics seems to be largely different, as the music seems to be skipping faster than his almost wandering vocals.  This perfectly captures the somewhat loose intent behind the lyrics, as they seem to discuss a man who is searching a forest for a missing girl.  Later in the lyrics, the man stops, realizing he is lost, and it is this point of desperate frustration on many levels that matches the mood and tone of the song perfectly, showing the overall talent and focus of Smith's vocals.

Though most are unaware, there are actually a number of very different versions of "A Forest" that were recorded by The Cure.  The best known take of the song appeared on the seven-inch single, clocking in at just under four minutes.  When it was released on the Seventeen Seconds album, it appeared at almost two full minutes longer, showing just how much of the track had been "faded out."  Nearly a decade later, the band re-recorded the song for their Mixed Up album, and there are a handful of other studio takes from the band, each with its own unique alterations.  Furthermore, groups ranging from The Toadies to Nouvelle Vague have recorded their own takes, and yet it may be the live incident in 1981 for which the song is best known.  At The Werchter Festival in Belgium that year, The Cure were slated to perform before Robert Palmer (who would be followed by other acts).  The festival was behind schedule, and since they were still an up-and-coming band compared to the "headliners," after only a dozen songs or so, Palmer's road crew started to "force" The Cure to end their set early.  Agreeing to play only one more song, the band kicked into "A Forest," dragging it out as long as possible, with Smith adding in some rather unflattering "extra" lyrics about Palmer.  This ended with Palmer's road crew throwing The Cure's equipment off of the back of the stage.  While this incident certainly lives on as a "music legend," there is no question that the band is far larger than this single moment, and The Cure rarely sounded more focused or outright impressive as one can find on their 1980 single, "A Forest."

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