Muddy Waters’ 1950 arrangement ‘Rollin’ Stone’ spawned inspiration in Bob Dylan and in the Rolling Stones before the magazine, and between these four a two-thousand-year-old saying made an unlikely home in rock music. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Designed by nature to change with the times, maybe it was inevitable that three are still rolling along sixty years later.
Cults turn ten in 2020, having averaged an album every two and a half years. From conception, the band – then still at university – were both lauded for their single-dense debut and challenged to mature their sound around something more deliberate and lasting. The last three albums have shown steady progression away from the original identity of Cults (2011); Static (2013) layered on instrumentals in an ambitious attempt at moody psychedelia while Offering (2017) cleaned up and soaked out any residual morbidity. Due for release 18 September, Host (2020) is predictably more refined and learned than the last, making a clear point on the willingness to evolve.
This time around, the duo are also fortunate to benefit from (singer/multi-instrumentalist) Madeline Follin’s songwriting contributions. In the past, the New Yorker held off from sharing her work, shy. But collaboration marks “a bold new chapter for the band”, who openly acknowledge their “boundless desire for growth and experimentation.”
On that note, ten years is also the length of time between Three Imaginary Boys (1979) and Disintegration (1989). The pressure for The Cure to refine their dreamy mid-eighties pop debut into something more weighty and “enduring” would ultimately redefine the band, shading anything thereafter as a product of that vital progression. Cults, going the other way, find themselves at the back end of an era that celebrated moody reverb-centric indie shoegazers and have defined their ideal of progress against a standard much cleaner and more organised than their starting point. Where The Cure layered on complexity, Cults strip back.
Uniting both is the drive for sustainability, the will to survive by moving the sound towards something more comprehensive. Host draws stylistically on the sunny-side-up optimism of Cults while tidying up the production and steering away from the woozy stupor of early millennium garage rock. Where peers stay trapped in Neverland, Cults grow up.
‘Trials’ sets the tone, a more solid opening than ‘Abducted’ or ‘I Know’ set out to be. The sappy, self-indulgent noises of the last record lose their place in Host, shifting attention to melody and lyrics. It is a bold move. Host, stripped of its reverb and distortion, can afford to be less complex than at the peak of melancholy in Static: happy is felt; sad is reasoned. But while bright Wonderland theatrics may guide the album through to its finale, Host finds its strength in its bleaker, more elaborate and conflicting moments.
Cults have done well to toy with new ideas; ‘8th Avenue’ is funky and bombastic– worlds away from ‘Go Outside’. But unmasking vocals from distortion has given a new value to softer, lyric-centred moments (‘Working It Over’, ‘Monolithic’) and miserable thematics (‘Spit You Out’, ‘A Purgatory’). Airy dream-pop may struggle to rub up against heavy lyrics; framed as the “cathartic journey towards freedom and self-reliance” coming out of a parasitic relationship, the album has a certain balance to strike. On the whole, it gets it right.
Whether the new direction was intentional or not, the Cults of 2020 sound very different to how they sounded in 2010. Stripped of its moss, unwilling to ride the easy wave of nostalgia, the record will deter some listeners and reward others. In their diversity of talent and range, Cults have ensured their survival as a band with still more to say. One can only look forward to the next album.
Words by James Reynolds
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