Sean Ragon is the smoldering voice of Cult of Youth. The band’s second record, Love Will Prevail, could be seen as hearkening back to all kinds of post-punk records, to the sweet, low defiance of Joy Division but combined with the jangling punk-folk of Billy Bragg. It could be that kind of throwback, if the music didn’t seem so fresh, if the seething energy didn’t seem so immediate.
The band’s second album doesn’t shy away from big ideas and bigger targets. It opens with “Man and Man’s Ruin”, a song that lures you in with a sweet acoustic strum, a spare percussion that makes it seem unassuming, even poppy, until Ragon’s reverb-treated baritone comes in. As he sings hauntingly of “living behind bars”, you get a clear hint about the tone of this record. It’s a record that is equal parts disillusionment and in-your-face determination. Even as he accounts ruin here, the song still bursts to life, with warm horn sections like long shadows behind Ragon’s authoritative shout. It leads into the fiery “Golden Age”, a burner of speeding acoustics bolstered by sharp string accents and the catchiest chorus on the record. It gets to Ragon’s yelling, but that edge is couched in some pretty clear pop sensibilities.
The best moments here balance a clear punk aesthetic with an eye for more subtle, though rarely subdued, hooks. “A New Way (Version)” has swaying pianos and the sweetest singing on the record, as Ragon looks towards a “new life for everyone.” Late in the record, there’s a darker mood to “To Lay with the Wolves”, but under all the tense building of strings is a sweet, rolling melody. It’s very much an album that pits personal freedom against outside constraints, and we see it vacillate between pastoral warmth and overcast shadow, from hopeful energy to piss-and-vinegar fury.
Love Will Prevail, despite its clear declaration in the title, does make some curious, sometimes inexplicable shifts. “Garden of Delights” has spitting vocals and an odd balance of heavy bass and light atmospherics, and all the Cave-esque macabre dramatics make for a too-strident shift to chaos in an album that thrives on the tension of control. Ragon is creating a sort of punk mythology with his persona, that deep voice treated with echo and stone-serious to sound like its own kind of higher authority. So sometimes that low authority slips into melodrama, especially on, say, the otherwise subdued hooks of closer “It Took a Lifetime”. It’s a song that plays like a rumbling pop number, but the vocals — in all their own rumbling glory — feel a bit forced, a bit too ham-handed in this setting.
Love Will Prevail is an ambitious, often great record, but in its ambition, in the risks it takes, it strives for a careful balance it can’t always achieve. Its risks sometimes come off as overly self-indulgent — see “Garden of Delights” — and in those moments, though they are often the loudest sounds, the album loses its tension and its control. This is an album driven by some unraveling emotions, but they’re best filtered through sound song structures. Ragon takes his punk aesthetic, and his experience in more pop-oriented bands like Love as Laughter, and often crafts a nice mix of the two. Going forward, though, Cult of Youth, is likely to lure in more converters, when they shout a little less. The talent is here, so there’s no need to try so hard to convince us, as Love Will Prevail does when it slips. Luckily, Ragon and company right the ship more often than not.