The Cure’s Shows from a Lost World, Live at the United Center (or, The World’s Most Unlikely Arena Band)

Back in 1980 when Robert Smith and Simon Gallup wrote “A Forest,” I’m not sure they ever expected to be playing it for a crowd of tens of thousands of people over forty years later. Even as their post-punk contemporaries like U2 and New Order shifted their once-dark songwriting to match poppier ambitions, the Cure remained intimate. Even on their more concerted attempts toward pop accessibility, there’s an insular feeling like Robert Smith would almost rather no one be listening in. Most of their music seems designed to be listened to by candlelight. The dancier tunes are more suited to dancing alone than in a club.

That never stopped the Cure from becoming massively popular though. On the Prayers Tour in 1989 following the success of Disintegration, they played many shows with audiences as large as forty-thousand people. The experience had a heavy toll on the band: unable to cope with the massive crowds, Robert Smith had panic attacks and swore never to tour again while other band members feuded with one another backstage.

But seeing them at the 23k capacity United Center in Chicago this past Saturday, it seems the Cure has found a sort of peace in their success.

“Endsong,” one of the new songs the Cure has been playing on this tour

Let me start off the recounting of my experience with the admission that arenas are far and away my least favorite context to see a band play. Nearly every part of the venue seems to be designed to hinder the experience. This was my first arena show since Covid hit, and I was a bit overwhelmed from the get-go. Immediately upon entering, my wife and I were thrust into a heavy crowd. Simply trying to find the bathroom required weaving the endless lines that had formed at the several merch booths scattered around the main lobby. At one point, we crossed through one line to find ourselves in another line from the other direction.

As we people watched, it was hard to ignore the diversity of the crowd. TikTok goths in bondage gear and full-face Kubuki-style makeup, Elder goths in understated, oversized black hoodies, and punks in battle jackets walked alongside ten-year-olds in Cure t-shirts, metalheads, and a fair amount of normies. At one point, I overheard a group of middle-aged men in chinos and polo shirts talking about the box seats their CEO got for them. It was the sort of ramshackle crowd you would only find at a Cure show, emblematic in a way of the diversity of their career.

We made our way to our seats as Scottish shoegazers the Twilight Sad began their opening set. In terms of unlikely arena bands, they’re also up there. At one point, frontman James Graham mentioned that they’d played in Chicago more than Edinburgh, and listed a few much, much smaller venues where they have played—places like The Metro, the Empty Bottle, and Subterranean, which would make much more sense than the United Center for a band like them. Still, the group made the most of the opportunity, putting on an electrifying show that I suspect netted the Twilight Sad a few more fans than they had before, even if around half of the seats were still empty at the end of their set.

After a brief intermission, the Cure took the stage to rapturous applause, kicking off their set with “Alone,” a new song expected to be on the upcoming album Songs from a Lost World (release date has not been announced). It’s been theorized that this will be their last album, and perhaps even their last tour. If so, the Cure are making the most of it. Through the extended instrumental intro of “Alone,” Smith slowly paced from one end of the stage to another, seeming to take time to appreciate the throngs of people that care so deeply about the songs he has written. Smith has a long history of self-deprecation in interviews, but here in front of the crowd, it seems that he is more grounded than self-deprecating: almost forty-five years into his career, he still recognizes what a precious thing it is to have people care about the art that you create. If he has an inflated ego about it, he never let on in Chicago. Instead, he occasionally poked jabs at himself, at one point admitting that he couldn’t remember the first line of the song they were about to play (“Like Cockatoos,” played live for the first time since 2018).

Despite Smith’s humility, the Cure never shrank back, even on such a massive stage. Chicago was not an early show on the tour—it was exactly the twentieth date, yet there was no sign of tiredness from the band—especially bassist Simon Gallup, who frequently trekked to the other side of the stage to banter with guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Smith’s voice is as vibrant as ever at sixty-five years old, despite confessing that he felt like he was losing it. A couple of the higher songs (“Disintegration” and “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”) were sung in a lower harmony than the original recording, but he was doing that even in shows in the ’90s.

The setlist (shown in full below) was an impressive overview of their career, offering a few surprising deep cuts alongside fan favorites and five or six new songs (“A Fragile Thing” and “Endsong” are of particular note). The set was predictably (and thankfully) heavy on songs from Disintegration and The Head on the Door, though I was a bit surprised at the inclusion of “Burn” from The Crow soundtrack and “Want” from the much-maligned Wild Mood Swings (though that is the best track off that record by a mile). I was also just slightly disappointed that they played no songs from Pornography, Bloodflowers, or their self-titled record. However, the show never felt like it lagged, even with its preference for longer songs with more instrumental passages.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay through the second encore, which was heavy on the classic hits (new parents, you know how it is). However, judging by other setlists online, the Chicago show was the longest set of the tour so far.

And despite my misgivings with arena shows and the crowds therein, there were several beautiful moments shared with other members of the audience. After the man behind me asked if the new album had been released yet, I chimed in with my frustrations that it didn’t even have a street date. A couple minutes later, he nudged me and offered me his pair of binoculars as if he were offering a drink from a flask. A group of decidedly non-goth women with one dudebro spent much of the show on their feet dancing, undisturbed by the fact that we were in the nosebleeds. A number of times, I could hear thousands of voices echoing Robert’s own catlike croon.

And in these moments, despite my initial knee-jerk misanthropy, I noticed a beautiful thing. The Cure are unlikely candidates for arena rockers. They’ve always made music for oddballs, misfits, and outcasts. Throughout the 80s and 90s, they were tossed around as cultural shorthand as the band all the weirdos liked. But it turns out that there are enough weirdos to fill stadium after stadium. In the last five decades, the Cure has become a sort of guiding light for the kids who never quite fit in. And even though many of us are grown up now, the age breakdown of the crowd shows me that those kids are still finding the Cure.

And even though Smith has said over and over that they never wanted to get as popular as they have, he seems to have accepted his coronation as King of the Outcasts with grace and dignity.

Long may he reign.

The Songs From a Lost World tour goes into July 1. If you have a chance to catch them, please, please, please do.

Pictures of You
A Fragile Thing
Like Cockatoos
A Night Like This
And Nothing Is Forever
If Only Tonight We Could Sleep
Charlotte Sometimes
Play for Today
A Forest
Shake Dog Shake
From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea

I Can Never Say Goodbye
It Can Never Be the Same

Encore 2:
The Walk
Friday I’m in Love
Close to Me
Why Can’t I Be You?
In Between Days
Just Like Heaven
Boys Don’t Cry
10:15 Saturday Night
Killing an Arab

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