Like, well, a cult, Cults have been all about mystery and mythmaking since surfacing online in the spring of 2010. Not much was known about the NYC duo before—or, really, after—it came out of nowhere to drop the irresistible single “Go Outside”, a rapturous combination of ethereal indie dance-pop and neo-Jackson 5-ish soul. But rather than overexposing themselves, the twosome of vocalist Madeline Follin and instrumentalist Brian Oblivion seemed to hunker down and remained relatively obscure, which only built up their group’s aura as “Go Outside” won over more and more new converts. By remaining as shadowy and enigmatic as any buzz band in the blog era can be, Cults whipped up a frenzy of anticipation for their debut outing, parlaying their air of inscrutability into being the first signing to Lily Allen’s In the Name Of label and their current status as the Class of 2011’s Most Likely to Succeed.
Considering the wait and the hype, it’s no mean feat that Cults’ self-titled first album lives up to the expectations, rewarding those who drank the Kool Aid for their faith and patience, while likely attracting more than a few new devotees. So while “Go Outside” was an impressive initiation rite for Cults, the album has a whole lot more to get you hooked on and make you into a follower. Go no further than Cults’ first track and latest single, “Abducted”, which takes hold of you right from the get-go by finding the sweet spot between sounding totally hyperbolic and intimately up-close-and-personal. It’s the same formula that made “Go Outside” such a revelation, only that “Abducted” ups the ante, with Follin’s sweet nothings softer and airier, and the DIY synth-rock more dynamic and propulsive. And when Follin coyly coos in the song’s intro, “I knew right then that I’d been abducted / I knew right then that he would be taking my heart,” Cults give you an idea of what you might be getting yourself into, as the pretty vocals and dark sentiments offer up a mission statement for the album.
As the singles testify, the secret to Cults’ success is the way the group takes reference points that have been cited to death by now and breathes new life into them, putting a twisted twist on what only appears to be lovey-dovey girl-group pop through their edgy, inventive compositions and the effed-up romances Follin sings about. Even though Follin and Oblivion seem especially reverent of their influences, they’re also riffing off ‘em in clever and ingenious ways. Like on “You Know What I Mean”, where Follin conveys the cool doo-whoppy sway of the Supremes’ yearning-and-burning vocals as sparkling synths and sound effects play behind her, only to bring her simmering mood to a boil when she shout-sings the chorus. And you might swear you hear the Supremes’ pop symphonies peeking through here and there on “Most Wanted”, with just the right hints of swelling strings and gently tinkling ivories. All in all, Oblivion’s deft orchestration really takes center stage on “Most Wanted”, as a thumping bass line and old-timey blues guitar get across an authentic blast-from-the past feel as they accompany Follin’s honeyed vocals.
Moments like these show how Cults are getting more comfortable in their own skin, reaching the point where they sound less like someone else and more like what they themselves could become. Sure, the uncanny way Follin channels the cherubic giddiness of a young Michael Jackson might stand out on “Oh My God”, but it’s how Oblivion matches the vocals with some spacey Animal Collective atmospherics and Caribou-like electronica that really blows your mind. Likewise, the contrast between the bubbling Philip Glass-lite keyboards and Follin’s soaring voice on “Walk at Night” creates an unlikely but serendipitous dynamic that’s a testament to Cults’ intuitive knack for finding the right combinations. Better yet are the full-on pop songs of the album’s second half on which Follin and Oblivion are no longer looking for outside inspiration because they’ve created a sound that’s identifiably their own by that point. In particular, “Never Heal Myself”, maybe the catchiest earworm on Cults, captures that vibe of desperation always just beneath the surface of many a girl-group standard, but Follin’s self-recriminations turn the perfect bedroom-pop lullaby into a barbed-wire kiss-off (“Yeah, trying to heal myself / And turn around to someone else / But I could never be myself / So fuck you”).
Still, that’s not say a band even as preternaturally gifted as Cults is doesn’t have more room to grow into its own. While it’s chock full of addictive pop fixes, Cults can sometimes feel like a relentless collection of instantly gratifying hits rather than a cohesive album with a big-picture sense of pacing and development. Really, the main thing they try to use to for continuity on the debut are the eerie cult soundbytes sampled into the background on some of the tracks, which comes off like a conceptual conceit that’s trying too hard, without adding a thing to the music itself. When it comes down to it, Cults don’t need to fall back on any gimmicks or gags to grab your attention and hold on to it, not when you hear the intuitive give-and-take between Follin and Oblivion on the sweet-and-sour duet “Bumper” or the helter-skelter call-and-response chants of the anthemic closer “Rave On”. So it might be easy to become a prisoner of the moment when it comes to a flavor-of-the-month like Cults, but this initial effort is one that shows off strong enough pop chops to win them their fair share of true believers, now and hereafter.