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New record is welcome Cure for true fans

If it's hard to believe the Cure hasn't released an album since 2000's "Bloodflowers," maybe it's because the British gloom mavens have seemed ever-present, especially in the past year.

Their 1990 song, "Pictures of You," was prominently featured in a recent Hewlett-Packard commercial. The soundtrack for the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy, "50 First Dates," boasted cover versions of two Cure classics, "Lovesong" and "Friday I'm in Love" by 311 and Alien Ant Farm's Dryden Mitchell, respectively. Brit It-Boy Jack Allsopp, who records as Just Jack, had a club hit with a mash-up of his song "Snowflakes" and the Cure's "Lullaby." And, of course, such up-and-coming bands as the Rapture and Hot Hot Heat, with their yowling vocals and jolting rhythms, are clearly influenced by the Cure.

Still, there ain't nothing like the real thing, and the Cure is back, more agitated and primal than it's sounded in ages. For this self-titled new album (its first for Geffen), the frothiness of "Just Like Heaven" and "Why Can't I Be You?" has been pushed aside for the group's most challenging collection since 1989's "Disintegration." Those who discovered the band with 1992's "Wish" might not know what to make of this CD, but longtime Cure fans, dating back to the band's post-punk beginnings, will relish its dark energy.

That may be exactly what Cure singer Robert Smith and his bandmates had in mind. In a 2000 interview, he said people who liked "Friday, I'm in Love" -- the hit single from "Wish" -- "aren't actually fans of the Cure. They're not the ones who buy my records." That was the same year Smith said the Cure, after 24 years, was ready to call it quits. It's not the first time Smith has threatened to retire the band, and in the current issue of Spin he admits he does so after every album "to keep the band on their toes." This time, Smith's tactic seems to have paid off especially well.

Surprisingly, the band gets a mighty assist from a very unlikely source -- Ross Robinson, best known for producing such testosterone monsters as Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Slipknot. Robinson would seem ill-suited for the Cure's emotional fragility, but he drives its sorrows and passions to a hard, disturbing, and satisfying edge. This isn't a rap-rock album -- Robinson is astute enough to let the Cure be the Cure. Smith has never sounded as forceful as he does on such songs as the opening track, "Lost," in which he wails, "I can't find myself / I got lost in someone else." A crescendo of crashing drums and jagged guitars, the song is a wash of distortion, but Smith's vocals are never overwhelmed.

The synergy between Smith and the band -- bassist Simon Gallup, guitarist Perry Bamonte, drummer Jason Cooper, and keyboardist Roger O'Donnell -- is especially sharp and glows with bruising beauty on songs such as "alt.end," "The End of the World," and "Us or Them." "Before Three" is a shimmering song, which never sacrifices its inherent loveliness for power. Smith's voice, for some a bit of an acquired taste, has become burnished with a kind of confident range and daring -- he's never sounded better.

So far, Smith hasn't hinted whether this is the Cure's final album. If it is, it's a stunning coda for a grand career distinguished by both its longevity and artistry. If not, it's yet another brilliant step for a band that began in 1976 and now sounds revitalized for the next quarter-century.

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