Existential meditations on the passing of time, eerie guitar sounds, Simon Gallup’s crisp bass lines coated in hazy synths and piano passages that sound as if they were played by ghosts in a haunted house. In a clear departure from the still somewhat punk-rocky vibe of their debut, Seventeen Seconds slowly arrives at the kind of sound The Cure eventually became famous: One that combines the dire and despair of human experience with a pinch of cheeky playfulness. Even though people associate them with all things dark and bleak, they are at the same time a cheerful band, in a wonderfully bizarre way. That undoubtedly has got to do with some of the biggest hits they went on to produce and the aesthetics they adapted as a means of sticking a middle finger in the faces of everyone who pigeon-holed them as gruff and drab. But if you have the advantage of knowing what will come, you can foresee some of that in their earlier work already.
“It’s not a case of doing what’s right
It’s just the way I feel that matters
Tell me I’m wrong, I don’t really care.”
[Play for Today]
There are no colours on the surface of Seventeen Seconds, the blurry image of the forest from the album cover is in this sense pretty accurate. The record constitutes the first chapter in the loose nihilist trilogy which further includes the murky sonic waters of Faith (1981) and existential screams of Pornography (1982). All three of these albums certainly are dismal on some level, you can’t pretend that the lyrics “I drown at night in your house” (In Your House) or “It doesn’t matter if we all die” (One Hundred Years on Pornography) come from a happy place. However, listen closely and you can find little sparks of joy sprinkled underneath the veil of misery. Taken out of the context the goth universe, couldn’t some parts on Play For Today or the guitar on Secrets be a part of a catchy pop tune? I say they totally could, but of course, they work best in contrast to the tormented vocals of Robert Smith, forever torn between dreams and nightmares. The music of The Cure, on Seventeen Seconds and beyond, allows you to handpick the layer that fits your mood, which might be the gloomy piece of lyrics in one moment and the upbeat bass line in the next.
An event which helped to shape the band’s sound was that The Cure accompanied Siouxsie and the Banshees on their UK tour promoting the album Join Hands in 1979. Robert Smith filled in on the guitar with the Banshees when John McKay dropped out mid-tour, an experience which had a profound influence on his musical style and pointed him in a new direction he wanted The Cure to take. He made sure he had more creative control over the recording process because he felt the lack of it during the production of their debut Three Imaginary Boys and was never really satisfied with the result. Smith composed most of the music for Seventeen Seconds at his parent’s home using a Hammond organ, a drum machine and his trademark Woolworth Top 20 guitar, the story goes that he wrote most of the lyrics in one night after having been in a fistfight in an elevator. I can’t imagine Smith getting involved in a fistfight anywhere, let alone the elevator, though I can imagine the sort of lads who’d want to punch his type of character when they see him. Either way, it’s true that a lot of what happens in the songs happens a night, to a lone narrator, who seems to be awake only to watch the hours slowly pass by. As the title suggests, the pursuit of measuring time is a recurring theme on the album. Even if they are not mentioned explicitly, the ticking clock and time always seem to be of importance – perhaps just to point out their pointlessness.
“Sunk deep in the night, I sink in the night
Standing alone underneath the sky
I feel the chill of ice on my face
I watch the hours go by, the hours go by.”
The opener A Reflexion starts with a short silence, only at about six seconds you first register the hum of the synthesizers. At the twelve seconds, the piano comes in at normal volume with a repetitive slow-paced tune evocative of an opening credits theme, before fading back to silence. Suddenly the drum of Play For Today kicks, one of the faster songs on the album. Robert Smith clearly has a thing for intros and outros, Play For Today is one of these songs where it take over a minute for the vocals to come in and they retreat again long before the end. In Your House ticks slowly like the hours that Smith is singing about, with a macabre sense of the surreal and the uncomfortable feeling of impending catastrophe hanging in the air. The guitar sounds as if it was smiling knowingly and reminds me of a mechanical toy winder, which adds to the horror-like atmosphere. Three feels like you’ve entered a creepy old house and you’re starting to hear voices because you can’t quite understand what is Smith whispering.
“I change the time in your house
The hours I take go so slow.”
[In Your House]
The Final Sound is a fifty-three-second long instrumental intermezzo, which again draws attention to the meaning of time – or the lack thereof. The track was supposed to be longer but the tape ran out during the recording and the tight budget and time schedule didn’t allow for another take. The track indeed ends abruptly and bursts into the magnificent intro of A Forest without any warning. Smith is taking his strategy of long instrumental openings and endings as far as it goes, adding a minute of distant buzz and slow guitar strokes before the song begins to unfold in its actual tempo. The intro has suspense that keeps you at the edge of your seat, and as the song goes on you can almost hear the legs running frantically between the trees. The protagonist’s refusal to admit his actions are futile becomes tangible when you reach the outro which keeps going on and on. A shorter edit of the song became the band’s first hit single, and it’s still a great tune even in that version. But I have to say it doesn’t really do it for me when the beat hits from the get-go, I feel robbed precisely of the tension that makes the song so great. Along with timing and atmosphere, suspense is vital to the whole album and lends it cinematographic qualities. Seventeen Seconds is, therefore, the perfect final track, closing credits as it were.
There hasn’t been a great era of The Cure in my music listening career where I would listen to nothing else but them and dig out every piece of trivia I could find. The goths from Sussex crept up on me slowly but grew to become all the more important: Compared to other artists from back in the day whom I adored at a specific point in my life but rarely dare to reopen that box, my love for The Cure is always in the present tense. Tell me I’m wrong, I don’t really care: Seventeen Seconds sounds as good as ever and A Forest still gets me again and again, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. Aren’t we all running through some sort of forest, always chasing the next promise we thought we saw shimmering in the distance?