In a world where viral marketing sells countless films and television shows, bands often get the opposite treatment. The blogosphere tends to have a way of exploding when a promising new act emerges, ranting about them until it loses interest in the release of their debut album.
Such is not the case for Cults, the no-name duo from Manhattan who landed a record deal with Columbia by accident. In a recent interview with NPR, lead vocalist Madeleine Follin recalls the overnight happenstance of Cults' popularity: “Well, I posted ['Go Outside'] on my Facebook, and one of my friends sent it over to the Gorilla vs. Bear. ... We had just made those songs, like, two weeks before, put them online a week later. They had only been online for a week.”
Before long, Pitchfork came a-knocking, awarding the group's melodies with lofty praise. Columbia took notice, and blogs went ballistic. Who were these two kids who snagged the attention of the music industry with a single three-and-a-half minute song? “We got really scared,” guitarist Brian Oblivion told Time Out. “We started frantically writing songs really quickly that were in the same style.” The pressure was enormous for the young, twentysomething NYC students, who had put their film major classes ahead of the songs.
You wouldn't know it, listening to their debut album, released June 7. Opener “Abducted” washes over the listener with Phil Spector-kissed waves of reverb, sunny splashes of sonic fuzz and sinister samples. Joining the kinetic chaos together are simplistic, three-chord twee chimes. Tales of religious cults taking advantage of their disoriented followers (with a name like “Cults,” what else did you expect?) provide striking contrast with weightless, upbeat melodies. Contrast is the name of the game here; much of the lyrical content centers on jaded narratives lamenting religion at its lowest.
Though Follin can be heard wailing lines such as, “I am afraid of the light,” any comparison to agnostic poster-child David Bazan should be left at the door. Though the songwriting is certainly influenced by the rejection of binding legalism, bitterness is not the primary force at work here. Freedom is the driving theme of these 11 cuts, all of which are accompanied by graceful album artwork featuring Follin and Oblivion breakdancing. Their wild, flowing hair obscures their faces from view, directing attention toward energy rather than celebrity.
Despite the shrouding of mystery, none of the finished product is overly complex. It is in this simplicity that Cults find their winning formula: closer “Rave On” proudly wears the tried and true pop formula that propelled '60s girl groups such as The Crystals and The Ronettes to stardom. Organs swirl, drums march and strings resonate. Though the dark themes present set Cults apart from the groups they recall with nostalgia, lyrics provide a catalyst for freedom rather than unnecessarily soggy Gothic mood. Cults aren't complaining on their debut; they're celebrating. And it is in this exhilarating release that their, well, “pop songs” are able to elegantly complement your summer afternoon stroll.
At the end of the day, Cults are all about finding beauty in the darkest places of human nature; namely where religion goes wrong. On the Jim Jones sample that opens lead single “Go Outside,” Oblivion explains to Pitchfork, “I wanted to incorporate these speakers saying beautiful things even though they're bad people.” And rather than reveling in cynicism, the two offer hope: “A lot of the idea of the band and its name is the idea of liberation.” In the hopelessness that often encompasses daily living, we too should strive to be equally optimistic.