Cults - Cults
Release Date: June 7th, 2011
Label: Columbia/In The Name Of
Cults are polarizing. It’s not the typical love/hate debate, but a newer conversation concerned with "how did they get so big so fast" and "do they deserve the buzz?". It’s been over a year since their first single “Go Outside” darted around blogs, radio stations, labels, pr firms, and to the ears of listeners across the globe. Conspiracies of how a buzz band went from self-releasing two singles to releasing a debut LP on a major label off-shoot (Columbia/Lily Allen’s label “In The Name Of) was the main topic concerning Cults. Are they marketing/social media geniuses? Has this whole thing been set up by Columbia from the beginning? Did Gorilla vs. Bear hype Cults to the point of instant success? Tracks, albums, and bands all have different paths and as with life, a million different paths are passed and not traveled. Every decision a band makes is picking a path and decisions fans/bloggers make create even more paths. There is never a single answer to how a band “makes it” or why a band doesn’t. It’s my theory that “Go Outside” was a spectacular track that was enjoyed by all types of music listeners and no matter the path it took, it was bound to find success.
After listening to the self-titled debut from Cults, I’m certain that the conversation will only slightly shift from “how did they get so big so quick?” to “does this album prove they deserved the buzz?” In short, yes, they definitely deserve the buzz/praise. My long form answer:
While the songs are sugary pop on the surface, Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion (Cults) are smarter than many would expect. From their branded black white album art that’s a tip of the hat to Jorgen Leth’s The Perfect Human or their deep understanding of early 60’s music pioneers Leslie Gore and producer Joe Meek; influence is only wet cement for the two twenty year olds to make a unique mark on. It’s this obsession with the early 60’s that might cause a misleading listen for many. In the early 60’s it was common for an artist or band to put out four to five 45’s and then release a full-length album around those songs. What’s odd is that Cults are releasing a “greatest hits” record as their debut LP and many won’t know how to take such a record.
It will be tough to find a better opening run of three consecutive songs than the Cults offering of “Abducted”, “Go Outside”, and “You Know What I Mean”. Any of these songs could end up at the top of best tracks of 2011 list (“Go Outside” was 2010, but considering 2011 LP cuts). If there is any questioning the hype surrounding Cults, the first three tracks should quiet detractors with a sonic pimp slap.
“Abducted” starts like a lot of Cults tracks, as the sounds are pushed to the background, almost as they are being played and recorded through a speaker. Then the song explodes with a drum hit and the track takes off. Speed is brilliantly tampered with on “Abducted” as Madeline pours her heart out over driving drums and a quickly stroked guitar only to slow down for Brian to deliver a calm and cool break. “Go Outside” plays in the shadows of happiness with a sunshine melody that feels a little off center. It’s instantaneously infectious and a smart take on the “sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows” themes of the early 60’s. While the song feels bright, it’s content is focused on a doomed relationship between someone who wants to live and someone who wants to hide. “You Know What I Mean” is a slow dance that plays like a confessional from a teenage girl on the brink of losing her mind. Madeline really shines on “You Know What I Mean”. It’s a simple melody, which with any other front woman/man could easily fall flat. During the chorus of the song, Madeline delivers her lyrics with all of her emotions exposed. It’s powerful and is a moment on the album that is hard to forget long after the listener has taken off the headphones. In the end, these three tracks are successful because they overflow with life. Each track is alive with introspection, emotion, and most importantly undeniable passion. For a band releasing their first album, these three tracks highlight Cults’ unflinching command on songwriting and their massive personalities that they aren’t afraid to show off.
The rest of the album is sprinkled with good to near great tracks. “Never Saw The Point”, “Bad Things”, “Rave On”, “Walk At Night” and “Never Heal Myself” are nice hints at what Cults have to offer down the road. Be it the addition of an acoustic guitar on “Never Heal Myself” or the crashing keys on “Bad Things”, Cults are definitely not satisfied with making copies of their hit songs. These tracks could easily be standouts on another record, but in the shadow of the first three tracks, they feel more like three star filler behind the four star opening tracks. When a music critic is citing three star tracks as negatives you know a band is doing something right.
The album isn’t without faults. Both “Most Wanted” and “Oh My God” both feel a bit childish and not as thought out as the other nine tracks. It’s like diet Cults or Cults zero. Both of these songs are what I imagine out of the bands that will eventually use Cults as inspiration. These tracks would typically be a problem for me when looking at the overall quality of the record, but this is not your current album release that is one singular thought. It’s a greatest hits album and unfortunately for my own taste, “Oh My God” was a hit among many of their listeners, so it’s on the record.
The highlight of the album comes from the track “Bumper”. It’s a wonderful guy/girl exchange that’s funny, heartbreaking, and a great piece of storytelling. “Bumper” is the best example of how the album presents the band’s attraction to playful darkness and their successful attempt to translate the theme into song. Madeline sings “I threw his shit on the floor” followed by a cute 60’s “la, la, la” and again with “I started crying my eyes out” “la, la, la”. Look no further than the 1:43 mark of the song to see that Madeline and Bryan are master songwriters ahead of their time. Madeline sings: “and give up all my hopes for…” and then everything drops out. Conventional songwriting would hit back in with a “you” or a “him”, but Cults refrain and leave the drop out silent. When they pick up, the previous verse is left as an interrupted thought, a common experience in life, but rarely displayed in song writing.
While there isn’t a wrong way to listen or judge an album, I encourage listeners to examine how albums were made in the early 60’s and think about how Cults present their eleven tracks with that in mind. This self-titled release is a really hard piece of art to fully grasp because the album sounds innocent during the first spin, but as the wax rotates, new layers and moments of brilliance are revealed. Cults made a promise with “Go Outside” that proposed a re-imagination of the early 60’s sound and an exploration between brightness and the darkness that hides behind loveable pop songs from the early 60’s. A year later they have delivered on that promise and it will be interesting to see where they go next with their sound. After this debut LP I have full confidence that Cults are not a flash in the pan, rather they’re a band with a vision all their own and the talent as songwriters to constantly challenge and surprise. I’m not sure where I will put this album on my “best of 2011” list (as it’s not an albums’ album). The Cults debut is a record with four of the best tracks I’ve heard in years and even after close to fifty plays, the last seconds of the Cults debut LP are always met with the same result, clicking back to the first track and starting over again.