Midway through recording ‘Host’, singer Madeline Follin let on to Cults‘ core songwriter Brian (oh, yes) Oblivion that she’d secretly been hoarding a bunch of songs of her own. Judging by the soiled yet sumptuous retro-futurist pop album that ‘Host’ subsequently morphed into, it must have been a Pulp Fiction suitcase sort of moment.
For four albums the New York duo have been building on the grainy underground ‘60s pop feel of their self-titled 2011 debut and its twinkly breakout hit ‘Go Outside’. Tinny edges became velvet borders, vintage synths took on new wave flavours and plush theatricality beckoned. ‘Host’, however, marks their emergence from their pupae stage.
Recorded largely on live instruments – a first for the band – the album sees Cults swear allegiance to contemporary underground music’s core ethos: corrode the classic. So, from the off, the dusky ‘60s strings of ‘Trials’ mesh with laptop modernism and neo-soul to make Follin sound like a SpaceX Nina Simone. ‘8th Avenue’ is like a space echo of Portishead’s ‘Dummy’, with its brassy jazz age swing decked with trip-hop drum tumbles and choirs of intergalactic angels. ‘Spit You Out’ turns from cutesy, phasing electro-indie into the sort of synthetic mystery dance that Bowie favoured in his later years, resembling the sound of 5G masts pumping out The Funk. And ‘A Low’ is catchy as Covid.
Those four fantastic openers set the emotional tone, as Follin bites back against the losers, gas lighters and control freaks she’s cutting loose from her life. Playing the warm-blooded, mascara-smeared ghost in the machine, she exudes damaged defiance that holds ‘Host’ together as it ventures ever further left-field – into krautrock crank pop (‘Like I Do’, Honest Love’), Chvrches synthetica (‘Shoulders To My Feet’) and celestial electro balladry (‘Working It Over’ and ‘A Purgatory’).
Retro charm remains core to Cults’ ethos, though, even when ‘No Risk’ comes on like Billy Joel going trash disco, Follin finding herself alone in a crowded room in a very New York state of paranoia. If any of your bedroom laptop mates ever try to argue that classic melody is a worthwhile sacrifice in the name of sonic progress, point them right this way.
Release date: September 18
Record label: Sinderlyn