x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Cults explore the dark side with melodic retro-pop

The enigmatic two-piece Cults produce a swoon-inducingly lovely, glockenspiel-embellished record with a palpable 1960s girl-group influence.

It's surely no coincidence that the cover art for their debut album sees Cults conceal their facial features behind their shaggy rock star locks. This Brooklyn-based duo - vocalist Madeline Follin and brilliantly named guitarist/vocalist Brian Oblivion - seem to possess a preternatural grasp of the power of mystique. As the latter noted in a recent interview: "A lot of our success in the past year or whatever has been based on us being extremely lazy and very rarely talking to anybody."

The pair first came to the attention of pop bloggers at the start of last year when they uploaded three tracks - Most Wanted, The Curse and Go Outside - to a just-created microsite on online music store Bandcamp. Indeed, one influential US music blog, Gorilla Vs. Bear, was so smitten with the latter that it made Go Outside the debut release on its fledgling record label.

A fourth Bandcamp track, Oh My God, followed that summer, before Cults performed a series of well-received live dates in and around New York City. These proved sufficient to convince Lily Allen to sign the duo to her imprint on Columbia Records, In The Name Of, which released Cults' debut album at the end of last month.

A few drips of information have since leaked out about the pair: that Follin and Oblivion are partners both romantically and musically; they met in San Diego while Oblivion was grafting as tour manager for Follin's brother's band and bonded almost instantly over the contents of one another's iPods; both are currently studying film at New York University. Even so, Cults remain a wilfully distant proposition.

Of course, this enigma only serves to make their eponymous debut album - entirely self-written and produced, albeit with engineering assistance from Sleigh Bells collaborator Shane Stoneback - all the more intriguing. Cults are purveyors of swoon-inducing retro- pop with a distinctive 1960s girl-group influence. It's a style of music that's finished with a thick layer of reverberation, applied like lacquer to their candied melodies and Follin's treacle-sweet vocals.

Indeed, so preeminent is Cults' beloved production treatment, that listening to the record in its entirety almost approximates to the sensation of drifting off to sleep on a warm weekend afternoon to the strains of a golden oldies radio station. Specifically, the sort of station that might spin an early 1960s hit like Lesley Gore's You Don't Own Me, which Follin and Oblivion have revealed is "their song" in the first-dance-at-the-wedding sense. Those details keep on dripping out.

However, if Cults make music to daydream to, you might find that the daydreams you experience while listening to them teeter towards the nightmarish.

The duo's choice of band name is no mere frippery, a point they underscore by prefacing Go Outside with a quote from Jim Jones, the quasi-religious Svengali figure who instigated a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978: "To me, death is not a fearful thing. It's living that's treacherous," Jones asserts at the start of the track, imbuing what follows - a warm and sticky slice of pop caramel with lyrics about a couple who possess differing degrees of joie de vivre - with the musical equivalent of a dark chocolate topping.

Knowing the provenance of that quote, makes one wonder how precisely one should take the song's closing line: "I think I want to live my life and you're just in my way ..."

Other songs feature samples of recorded speech from Patty Hearst, the so-called "urban guerrilla", and Charles Manson, the serial killer. "I wanted quotes of ugly people saying beautiful things," Oblivion explains in the band's official biography. "That's the pinnacle of beauty to me, when someone who is so obviously disagreeable ... can say something perfect."

However, Cults don't really need to reach for the newsreel archives to make their music sound creepy. The album begins with Abducted, a peppy indie-pop nugget in which Follin likens falling in love with having all self-control wrestled from her grasp. Nothing unusual there, you might think, until she asserts: "He took my heart away and left me to bleed out, bleed out." And it's not long before Oblivion glides in with his own contribution: "I knew right then that I would be taking her heart. I knew right then that I'd never love her."

Elsewhere, Most Wanted paints an almost too vivid picture of a drug addict struggling with - and ultimately succumbing to - her cravings.

"Can't you see that I'm trying?" Follin pleads, before submitting to the inevitable "shaking hands in the street" transaction, artificial high and feelings of crippling guilt the morning after.

"All alone I'm crying, crying for all of the people who love me so," she laments, before leaving us with a crushing truism as her parting shot: "What we want most is bad for us we know."

Cults also trade in those staples of teenage melodrama - unrequited love (Never Heal Myself) and running away (Bad Things) - but their LP's most prevalent themes are ennui, frustration and relationship dysfunction. In the case of album centrepiece Oh My God, they're all wrapped up in the same song. "I'm so tired of sitting around here with my boring life," Follin complains, before informing her paramour that she "can run away and leave you anytime". The production, as beguiling and blurry as ever, only heightens the idea of a life being quietly choked.

Across the album as a whole, Cults' choice of subject matter raises an interesting question - albeit one whose answer can only be determined with any modicum of certainty by Follin and Oblivion themselves. Given that the couple's bond is obviously strong enough to sustain both a working and romantic partnership, do they use their songs as outlets for frustrations that might otherwise remain unsaid - frustrations that could, in the fullness of time, become corrosive?

Yet, as soon as one thinks one might be getting to grips with Cults, they conjure up something really quite unexpected. It wouldn't be entirely misleading to describe Rave On as a "singalong pop song", its chorus vocals are overdubbed to an effect that's anthemic and terribly catchy, but also slightly unsettling. "So rave on, rave on," a choir of Follin and Oblivion intone intensely, "So rave on, rave on ..."

As a result, Cults leave the listener in possession of conclusions both specific and sweeping. We grasp that the melodies of the glockenspiel have rarely sounded this chilling and that absolutely, this is a gem of a pop record, so much more sustaining than its 34-minute running time would suggest. But we are left with no answer to the most tantalising question of all: "What are Cults really about?" Trying to find out will doubtless continue to prove irresistible, thanks in no small part to the power of mystique that surrounds the duo.

Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.