The old proverb “a rolling stone gathers no moss” has a unique significance in music. The 1950 Muddy Waters arrangement ‘Rollin’ Stone’ would spawn inspiration in Bob Dylan and the eponymous rock band before reaching the magazine, and within twenty years a two-thousand-year-old saying had found its unlikely home in rock ‘n’ roll. A propensity for change is ostensibly the key indicator of success for career musicians and it seems only fitting that both Dylan and the Stones are still rolling along sixty years later.
Cults turn ten in 2020, having averaged an album every two and a half years. This is no mean feat. From their conception, the band – then still at university – were both lauded for their single-dense debut and challenged to mature and remould their sound around something more deliberate and lasting. Accordingly, the last three albums have shown a steady progression away from the original identity of Cults (2011): Static (2013) tidily layered on instrumentals in an ambitious attempt at moody psychedelia; 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, deterring any would-be critics from challenging the band on their willingness to evolve.
This time around, the duo are also fortunate enough to benefit from (singer/multi-instrumentalist) Madeline Follin’s songwriting contributions. In the past, the New Yorker held off from sharing her work, citing shyness. But collaboration marks “a bold new chapter for the band”, who openly acknowledge their “boundless desire for growth and experimentation.”
On the note of growth and experimentation, ten years is also the length of time between Three Imaginary Boys and Disintegration. This comparison is no stretch. The pressure for The Cure to refine their dreamy mid-eighties pop debut into something more weighty and “enduring” would ultimately help reform and redefine the band, shading anything thereafter as a product of that vital progression. Inversely, Cults 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. But uniting both is the perceived desire for sustainability by advancing the sound towards something more substantial and comprehensive. Host hence draws stylistically on the sunny-side-up optimism of Cults while tidying the production and steering away from the woozy day-drinking stupor that demarcated New York City’s garage-dwelling output of the early new millennium. In short: it grows up.
‘Trials’ sets the tone: a far more punchy and formed opening than ‘Abducted’ or ‘I Know’ set out to be. The instant nostalgia afforded by droopy echo and reverb in previous albums loses its place in Host, and the absence will instead refocus attention to melody and lyrics. It is a bold move. Host can also, in theory, afford to be less complex than at the peak of their 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 regardless.
Cults have done a fine job of playing around with new ideas; ‘8th Avenue’ is funky and bombastic – worlds away from ‘Go Outside’. But unmasking vocals from distortion has naturally 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 juxtapose neatly 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. The ascension from saccharine vintage throwback will deter some listeners but welcome 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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