Thursday, 20 October 2011
67 Japanese Whispers - The Cure
Purchased : 29 September 1987
Tracks : Let's Go To Bed / The Dream / Just One Kiss / The Upstairs Room / The Walk / Speak My Language / Lament / The Lovecats
I'm surprised that I bought another LP the following day almost as if I was trying to wash away the disappointment of Strangeways Here We Come with an album of more certain reward.
"Japanese Whispers " was a stopgap mini-LP released at the end of 1983 to collect together the three singles released since the band's challenging last album "Pornography" in 1982. Bassist Simon Gallup had left the group ( temporarily as it turned out ) allowing mainman Robert Smith and drummer turned keyboards player Lol Tolhurst to pursue a more pop direction like so many of their peers in the New Pop era. They had been instantly rewarded with a real commercial breakthrough and this record neatly captures that turning point in the group's fortunes.
"Let's Go To Bed" snuck out as a single in late 1982 and came as a considerable surprise. Earlier in the year "Pornography" had been an album of unrelenting morose Goth- rock heroically out of step with the times and with Gallup jumping ship it had been widely assumed that the group was coming to an end. Instead Smith and Tolhurst came up with a catchy synth pop tune that sounded like no one else due to its complex stop-start bassline. Smith has subsequently said it was a sarcastic comment on the use of sexuality to sell music ( making Rihanna's steal of the keyboard hook for her S & M single highly ironic ) but to me it's always sounded more like a song about first time nervousness and one remembers that Smith and his wife's relationship goes back to their school days. Despite a seemingly irresistible earworm of a chorus and a reference to Christmas in the second verse it got overlooked in the December rush and peaked at 44.
"The Dream" was originally the B-side to the follow-up single which we'll come to shortly. The title of the LP seems particularly appropriate to this track as , Smith's voice apart , it sounds identical to Tin Drum-era Japan with its Oriental keyboard sounds and offbeat rhythms. The lyrics explore similar territory to the previous track starting out with images of childhood innocence then getting into more sexual territory as the song progresses. What it doesn't have is a strong melody and B-side seems about right.
" Just One Kiss " ( B side to "Let's Go To Bed" ) recycles the restless clatter of "Pornography"'s only single "The Hanging Garden" ( itself owing much to Joy Division's Atrocity Exhibition ) but whereas that was a defiantly unmelodic dirge , here we have a beautifully mournful song , perefectly delivered by Smith, about the ephemeral nature of nostalgia - "remember the sound that could wake the dead but nobody woke up at all" . The "haunting " keyboard contributions are showing their age a bit but in a way that's thematically appropriate.
"The Upstairs Room" was originally on the 12 inch single of the next track and is at least its equal. Tethered to a drum machine and discreet bass synth pulse it's an appealing mix of Japan-ish keyboard lines, melodic bass runs that can't fail to suggest Peter Hook and economic blasts of early Banshees guitar. The song concerns Smith's temporary sojourn in Steve Severin's living room when they were working together on The Glove project and seems to be an affectionate but mildly reproachful assurance to his partner Mary - "I thought you would know that I always sleep alone".
Side Two commences with that second "pop" single "The Walk" which finally cracked the Top 20 for them in July 1983. It has to be said straightaway that there's an unmistakable resemblance to Blue Monday in the pounding bass synth and frequent percussive breaks but the topline Oriental melody and morbid lyrics are the group's own . There are hints that this is a murder ballad but Smith kept it vague enough for radio play and reaped the reward.
"Speak My Language " was B-side to the third and biggest hit on the LP and by which time the band had expanded to include a new rhythm section of bassist Phil Thornalley and drummer Andy Anderson. Smith's desire to explore different musical territory is immediately obvious on this loose , jazzy track with Thornalley playing upright bass and a ragged piano picking out the melody. However Smith doesn't take much notice of the tune and is off-key throughout the song; his guitar is similarly atonal making it the most "difficult" track on the LP. The song is about communication failure and fittingly the chorus is a babble of mumbles before the title plea.
"Lament" , another track from the "The Walk" 12 inch, seems to have been inspired by the mysterious death of corrupt Italian banker Roberto Calvi in London the previous summer. Calvi was found hanging underneath Blackfriars Bridge after going on the run but the initial verdict of suicide has been widely challenged. Smith's sly references to Catholicism - "They talked of how they loved Our Lady and oh the smell as candles die" - and ice cream are big clues. It's another case of recycling elements from "Pornography" in a more commercial context , this time the nagging guitar riff from "One Hundred Years" ( the previous album's terminally bleak and attritional opening track) here used as an instrumental chorus between Smith's mournful but melodic verses. The synth sounds again sound a bit dated but it remains an affecting song.
Which leaves us with "The Love Cats" which took them into the Top Ten for the first time aided by a Tim Pope video which fixed Smith's enduring and paradoxical public image as the court jester of Goth. It's been suggested that Smith's inspiration was the Australian novel The Vivisector by Patrick White although I suspect The Aristocats ( my own childhood favourite film ) was a rather bigger influence particularly as only the French cat's accordion is missing from the alley cats' instrumental line-up here. That's a better thought to dwell on than the unfortunate association the lyrics now have with Galloway and Lenska. It's a skilfully executed pastiche particularly the milk bottle percussion and cat crow guitar wails but I can't say it's one of my favourites.
All in all you have a pretty good album ; indeed some fans rate it their best. Certainly it's the most accessible; on all their subsequent albums ( some of which we'll be covering ) Smith would aim for a balance between pop nuggets and less easy on the ear material. I prefer one of its predecessors but you'll have to wait a bit for that one.