Back when MTV was a viable way to get exposed to new music, one of the station’s flagship programmes actually functioned as a nostalgic retrod of an artist’s tried and true greatest hits. MTV Unplugged put a twist on the traditional live format in that the artists would take their typically electric songs and strip them back to a more intimate and bare-bones arrangement.
Occasionally, you had bands and singers who bucked the traditional setup. Nirvana famously refused to play much of their best-loved material during their recording, while Bruce Springsteen ignored the format altogether due to his discontent with his then-current backing band’s acoustic arrangements (that band was notably not The E Street Band). But the flagship ‘unplugged greatest hits’ performance was too popular for most bands to ignore, and that’s why slightly incongruous artists like LL Cool J and Kiss were able to stage successful unplugged concerts.
One of the bands who acquiesced to the trend was The Cure. Robert Smith’s moody, effects-heavy material was probably not best suited for the acoustic format, but he and the Wish era members, which included Pearl Thompson, Simon Gallup, Boris Williams, and Perry Bamonte, dutifully bandied onto their supremely padded stage to perform amiable and relaxing versions of some of their best-loved songs. As it turned out, pop songs like ‘Lovesong’ and ‘Just Like Heaven’ were ideal for an acoustic show, while even more traditional post-punk numbers like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘A Letter to Elise’ fared well.
In what should come as no surprise, Smith wasn’t terribly enthralled with the format and rarely returned to the acoustic-one setup. He continued to use acoustic guitars in concert, but the standard electronic instruments would be the primary way that Cure songs would, and probably should, be enjoyed.
And yet, while compiling The Cure Greatest Hits in 2001, Smith made the decision to include a bonus disk with all of the songs featured on the international version of the CD re-recorded in the acoustic format (why they decided not to include ‘Pictures of You’, perhaps their greatest song, is beyond me). The performances are a fascinating return to an idiom that Smith took little joy in a decade prior, and yet he seems enraptured with the acoustic format here.
Perhaps that’s because the production was of a higher grade than the original MTV Unplugged performances. Whether it was by design or just by virtue of its live format, the Unplugged performance features rinky-dink keyboard sounds and is poorly mixed. For these songs, The Cure are in a professional studio, with professional mixes and levels, taking some of the band’s best songs to exciting new sonic territories.
The most interesting song here is ‘A Forest’, a landmark recording in punk’s transition to post-punk and, specifically for The Cure, a more gothic style. Synthetic and air-tight, the original version of ‘A Forest’ is the complete antithesis of what an acoustic performance is. But when the band pluck away, it sounds completely natural. It helps that keyboardist Roger O’Donnell gets to stay plugged, adding the necessary atmosphere from the claustrophobic song’s eerie aura.
Otherwise, the video contains three songs that lend themselves well to the acoustic format. ‘The Lovecats’ is loose and goofy with Smith adding some kooky slide guitar sounds, ‘Close to Me’ layers its various different instruments into a fine stew of melody and rhythm, and ‘Lullaby’ gets to retain its sinister edge while sounding closer to its eponymous soothing song than ever before. All told, it’s a side of The Cure that very rarely gets shown, and it’s fascinating to see what the band changes and what they keep the same in a more exposed format.
Check out the acoustic performances down below.