opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
There was a tectonic shift in the world of Cults after the release of their adored eponymous debut. Singer Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion, the only steady members in New York retro-pop group, ended their four-year relationship. Despite this dramatic alteration to the band’s dynamic, they agreed to keep making music together. Their second album, Static, is a grim affair, faithfully appropriating both the hollowness of a break-up and their signature smothering tones of 60s girl groups, Phil Spector, et al. Obviously the product of a rough patch in the lives of its creators, Static plays out as a series of therapy sessions put to tape – some touching, others petulant and antagonizing – supplemented by an unmistakably feebler collection of music.
As with their debut, Cults’ production qualities are splendidly shitty, tweaked and scuffed with reverb, echo and delay, recalling a time where compact cassettes had yet to be invented. Aside from a trickle of electronic embellishments, their sound is largely unchanged. This is fine in theory; who doesn’t enjoy a skillfully done sendup? What holds this album back is that the songwriting is less sharp than it was the last go around, a fact that’s accentuated by the band’s lack of musical development. There’s Follin’s usual pairing of cheery melodies and sinister words, but here this sense of loneliness doesn’t just permeate Static’s songs, it dominates them. The gloom is pervasive, the lyrics middling and mopey, the choruses are often unnecessarily plaintive and occasionally bland. As a result, Static achieves an unsought sense of uniformity.
On the other side of the coin, Cults have established a reputation for dependability in their short careers, and Static reveals itself more as reliable extension of its predecessor than anything else. At a crisp 11 tracks and 35 minutes, it isn’t exactly flush with opportunities for Follin and Oblivion to push themselves either. Setting the table is “I Know”, a parched lament that is more a primer for what’s to come than a song in itself. “I know you’re mine,” begins Follin. Never ones to apply irony sparingly, they follow it up with the snappy, charming lead single, “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”. With full context, however, it’s easy to feel a little cheated, like watching a movie where the best jokes were in the trailer. From there, Cults plod from song to song, unable to achieve the consistency with their songwriting that they achieve with their sound. No other track here, other than perhaps “Keep Your Head Up” or “High Road” properly supplements the heartache with hooks, and there’s no mega-crowd-pleaser like “Go Outside” waiting in the wings.
The fact that Static can be so pessimistic and not totally off-putting is a testament to Cults’ intrinsic charisma. Vocally, Follin is mostly on point, harmonizing bitterness and melancholy with the tympanic bounce of tracks like “High Road” and “Shine A Light”. “We’ve Got It” slinks along with a classic noir vibe, serving as a tonic after a bumpy middle stretch. “We won’t be a problem anymore,” Follin sings. The smarm is delightfully apparent, while the pining at the chorus seems overwrought by comparison (“There’s no one there for me/There’s only you my love”). Elsewhere her youthful pitch grates, as with the ponderous closer “No Hope” and the exhaustively mediocre “Were Before”.
Credit where it’s due: No one else is recreating these sounds as effectually as Cults are. Yet such a faithful restoration of a long-gone era with no evident ambition to stretch beyond it often has the air of a band struggling creatively. The problem comes down to this: Static lacks variety. It’s just a short-fused, gloomy rehash, and what little has been changed isn’t really an improvement. [C+]