When the Cure completed its last album, 2000's Bloodflowers, bandleader Robert Smith knew it lacked focus. Eager to give the troubled project some cachet, he said the record was the final installment of a trilogy. Of course, it helped that he chose a pair of the British band's best-loved works -- Pornography (1982) and Disintegration (1989)-- as the first two-thirds. To drive the point home, the band performed all three albums in their entirety over two nights in Berlin last year. The Trilogy DVD contains the whole concert, lipstick and all.
Critically blasted on its release, Pornography ranks as one of rock's darkest and most depressing downers. Trouser Press reluctantly recommended it, though "not for the suicide-prone." Driven by a drum sound that eschewed crashing cymbals in favor of a sinister thud, Pornography plodded and pounded along to some of Smith's most disturbing material. The lyrics are surreal and ominous -- in interviews, Smith has admitted that LSD played a large part of the chaos reflected here. The first song, "One Hundred Years," opens with the classic line, "It doesn't matter if we all die."
Thankfully, Pornography in the flesh shakes off the squalor and spreads into a majestic brute. Only Smith and bassist Simon Gallup were around for the making of this milestone; yet all the band members tear into the songs as if they've thought about nothing else for 20 years. After the stately synthesizer chill of "Cold" and the frightening title track, Smith tells the audience, "See you in seven years!"
The long, loping love songs of Disintegration represent the Cure's creative pinnacle. (Remember when Smith guested on South Park and Stan gushed it was the "best album ever"?) Defining densely dramatic arena rock sans the stereotypical trappings -- in High-Definition Video and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, no less -- Disintegration is hard to beat. Unfortunately, the second of this two-disc set is a letdown. The majority of Bloodflowers' songs sound like second cousins of Disintegration's "Pictures of You," and the interview segment tacked on the end feels rehearsed and rote.
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In contrast to the Cure's rock-concert perfectionism, New Order has long been renowned as a difficult live act. The 316 disc begins with the so-called Taras Shevchenko performance, recorded in New York City in 1981. Less than a year after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis -- which of course changed Joy Division into New Order -- the band was in the unenviable position of playing surrogate for something never seen. With new member Gillian Gilbert on guitar and keyboards, the members performed frozen in place, never acknowledging the audience or one another. Shaky singing from Barney Sumner (especially on the rudimentary version of "Temptation," then the band's newest tune) and a sullen demeanor distinguished New Order at the time. Despite flawless sound, this show documents those attributes well. The band's reputation also included acting defensive and prickly during interviews.
Eighteen years later (!), those myths are laid to rest with the film of the band's 1998 Reading Festival show in front of 50,000 fans. Cruising through their catalog with unanticipated vitality, Sumner and bassist Peter Hook are gregarious to the point of buffoonery. They're also old, wealthy, and wise enough not to turn their backs on their own past. The candid interview segments include remarkably poignant moments, like Hook's facial expression as he discusses the fact that it's been 20 years since Curtis' death. Sumner even explains the band's decision to lift its self-imposed sanction on performing Joy Division songs: "It's like disregarding your inheritance. We're very proud of those songs."
511, as its title indicates, contains five songs from the Joy Division days and 11 New Order tunes, all recorded during a show last summer in London's Finsbury Park. Though haggard, Sumner sports the same haircut he's always had, but his newfound conviviality is disarming. That good humor seems slightly at odds with the seriousness of some of the material -- Joy Division's somber "Atmosphere" doesn't easily lend itself to Sumner's embarrassing dancing. Despite the old songs they evidently roll out time and time again ("Ceremony," "Temptation," and "Blue Monday,"), band members are quite obviously overjoyed to be playing them. And how can that ruin the mystique?