Punk rock is one of the few cultural forces that can be described as both anarchistic and conservative. On one hand, punk bands use their music to preach about extreme politics and pseudo-revolutionary propaganda like the freedom fighters they claim to be. On the other hand, their single minded devotion to music that’s raw, fast, and political means they tend to get cliquey and dismissive when discussing artists that don’t fit into their limiting idea of what is or is not punk.
Considering punk rock spends a majority of its time trash talking mainstream pop, it’s easy to forget that many of punks founding bands were inspired by pop from the ’50s and ’60s. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Boys Don’t Cry, The American debut of The Cure and an album that successfully combines the diverging sounds of punk, vintage pop, and modernist sensibilities.
Boys Don’t Cry is a different beast than The Cure’s British debut, Three Imaginary Boys, since its restructured track list gives the album a different feel. Three Imaginary Boys focused on slower and weirder tracks while Boys Don’t Cry jettisons those in favor of recently released singles such as “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and the iconic title track. Surprisingly, Boys Don’t Cry has held up better over time since it has a stronger song selection and a greater sense of immediacy. The British record oftentimes make them sound like pretentious, faux-art school intellectuals.
Despite their reputation for cavernous gothic misery, Boys Don’t Cry presents a lighter and sprightlier take on the punk sound that avoids the political grandstanding or phoned in “authenticity” of its peers. Musically, the band crafts songs that float between mainstream and underground such as the title track which draws upon classic pop themes of teen heartbreak while featuring charging guitars and mechanical rhythms.
The other songs thrive off similar contradictions with harsh spiky notes sitting uncomfortably beside robotic drumming and surprisingly funky basslines. In less capable hands these combinations could have been disastrous, but The Cure make it work by keeping the arrangements tight and the choruses memorable, allowing the music to be weird without sacrificing its populist appeal.
Lyrically, Robert Smith tackles his well-known themes of despair, but here they are tempered with a youthful naivety that makes them less overwhelming to digest. Tracks like “10.15 Saturday Night” and “Plastic Passion” portray the same urban decadence as The Cure’s punk contemporaries but Smith focuses these themes through the lens of romantic longing and superficial relationships.
While some would argue that this trivializes what the punks were trying to articulate, Smith’s sense of romanticism allows these themes have to have more of an impact because they are sold to us with relatability rather than with sneered condescension. The same can be said for the music; the shamelessly hooky value of the songs makes their experimental traits seem colorful and quirky rather than alienating.
Boys Don’t Cry didn’t sell well commercially at first, but subsequent live shows and platinum selling compilations have turned these tracks into fan favorites. The influence of this record cannot be overstated, since the combination of art punk with relatable themes provided an early template for New Wave and emo-pop bands down the line. More importantly it proved that a band could toe the line between commercial and alternative without losing the qualities that make both sounds work. Although The Cure’s future singles would eclipse their work here artistically and commercially, as an album few of their subsequent records can equal the song for song level of quality that Boys Don’t Cry possesses.