Cults – “You Know What I Mean”
I feel like this review should be called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cults,” or something like that. Because, like Tyler and Sleigh Bells before them, this group represents as much a confluence of concepts as it does an artistic vision – the continued redefinition of the “music industry,” the changing career paths of young artists, the deference paid by modern music to sounds from the past. Consequently, conversations about this sunny duo stray far afield into musings on major label debuts and genre signifiers. But those sorts of conversations also limit the way we perceive music like this; in the words of Cults’ Brian Oblivion, “We want to pigeonhole and categorize bands, and it kind of flattens their image.”
Obviously, Cults owes a big bit of deference to The Supremes, to Phil Spector, to Lesley Gore, to the early sixties and surf rock. But this is not a period piece album, and spending too much time talking about the predecessors seems like it’s doing a disservice to the here and now. The references and signifiers are blatant and unwavering, but they aren’t superficial. Where likeminded duo She & Him can often sound overly cutesy, as if this whole retro thing is just a lark, Cults makes it sound sincere. This is a pair of kids making music that sounds a lot like the music they like to listen to, but with new tools and perspective. “You Know What I Mean” is a drugged and paranoid “Where Did Our Love Go.” “Bumper” takes Grease’s “Summer Nights” and throws it out on its ass.
Clocking in at a few ticks past half an hour, Cults takes the airy vibe of the band’s attention-catching single, “Go Outside,” and develops it into fuller form, coaxing it in different directions and establishing an updated signature sound. The result is an album full of comfortably similar songs, but with an underlying complexity that renders the record an easy one to fall for. Looking to lyrically analyze a falsely cheery album that is full of self doubt and confusion? Look no further. But, weirdly enough, this album fits the bill for a play-in-the-background summertime record just as well. Cults is fun, strangely deep, and endlessly familiar. Singer Madeline Follin’s heavily reverbed voice is playfully presumptuous, imbued with both entitlement and mirth.
Though the album rarely deviates from Cults’ beachy keen vibe, the opening trio stands out in particular on Cults. By utilizing the go-to technique of starting the record in the distance, as if the stereo cables aren’t all the way plugged in, the pair give the record an immediate pop; by the time the drum cracks, nearly 40 seconds into opening track “Abducted,” you’ve already turned up your speakers high enough to hear the intricacies of the tune (despite the album’s questionable mix, I might add). Following its opening jolt, the song transforms into one of the album’s best tracks, playing with a flexible meter, showcasing both Follin and Oblivion, and establishing the high energy heartbreak that runs throughout Cults.
“Go Outside,” by now a familiar friend, follows that tune, slowing things down enough to let you catch your breath and look back fondly on the first time you met this young duo. Before long, though, you’re whisked back inside to a lounge, where Follin plays the part of sultry singer. Background snaps echo while Follin monologues before the rest of the instruments show up. The song, perhaps Cults’ most obvious nod to the sixties, complete with blatant Supremes reference, makes clear the line between old and new, packing some rage into a ballad style more accustomed to romance.
The rest of the album follows in the form laid out by those three tunes, mixing retro references with thoroughly modern techniques and topics. The next eight tracks aren’t unremarkable, but few songs distance themselves from the pack. “Never Heal Myself” is a standout, as is the aforementioned “Bumper,” but the quality is unwavering and all of the songs are downright enjoyable.
Sometimes I wonder, of course, whether our propensity to talk about everything but the music when discussing Cults is indicative of a lack of content. To be sure, Follin’s verses are not particularly profound, beyond the intriguing juxtaposition of downer lyrics and upbeat melodies, and the album does suffer from a bit of blend. But I think that surface-level uniformity is a strength for this duo. The fact that Cults has very few missteps or drastic shifts is more crucial for this band than most. After rocketing onto the scene powered by a couple great tracks, Follin and Oblivion have taken their time in getting this record to market, and I think it’s intentional. This is a summertime pop gem that is both brief and breezy. Cults can – and will – spin on repeat for many a sun-baked afternoon.
02. Go Outside
03. You Know What I Mean
04. Most Wanted
05. Walk At Night
06. Never Heal Myself
07. Oh My God
08. Never Saw The Point
09. Bad Things
11. Rave On
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