This Cure Is Not Worth the Pain : ** THE CURE; “Wish” <i> Fiction/Elektra</i>

“I really don’t know what I’m doing here,” Robert Smith announces--all too disingenuously--at the beginning of the Cure’s 12th album. For the next hour or so he proceeds to do what’s worked so well for him over the bulk of 11 prior projects: sulk.

It was easier to indulge Smith’s sullen funks in his more creative days, but “Wish” finds the Cure grinding against a brick wall at the end of a dead-end street. The cul-de-sac still has its pleasures, but once-potent emotions like “The sky is gray . . . All I wish has gone away” and “You don’t care anymore / It’s all gone” can only be trodden so many times before they go flat and rote.

As usual, dynamics, key changes and other formal variations aren’t really the Cure’s bag, and even the few nominally cheerier tunes--"High,” “Friday I Love You” and “Doing the Unstuck” (“Let’s get happy!” Smith suddenly proclaims)--tend to be static and stylistically indistinguishable from their mordant counterparts.

At heart Smith is really a pop traditionalist, a sheep in wolf’s black clothing, turning standard girl-obsessed sentiments into raw gothic rock just by stripping away rock’s usual transformingly ironic veneer. Now he’s strip mining his own niche. The lonesome-dronin’ thing was fresh once, but this sounds like just another soundtrack for Prozac withdrawal.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).