Cultivated Listening

I wasn’t going to write about the debut album from Cults. The very idea of the band annoyed me. I’m tired of male-female duos like the The White Stripes, Fiery Furnaces, and Mates of State. I’m tired of records that sound like they’re being played over an AM radio. And I’m especially tired of bands from Brooklyn, which actually make me long for the days when Seattle was all the rage.

But when I sat down to tap my bile, I started to feel pangs of conscience. Whenever I review a record, I make it a point to listen to it over and over, even if that procedure feels like torture. With Cults, though, I found myself struggling to sustain my antipathy.

Despite Madeline Follin’s breathy teenage vocals, far too coy for my taste; despite the album’s failure to deliver much of a rock-and-roll payload; despite my annoyance at the aura of mystery she and Brian Oblivion have cultivated around the band, I was gradually snared by the album’s intriguing details.

What are those spoken-word samples that flit in and out of tracks like “Abducted”? Why does the music get bouncy precisely when the words seem bleakest: “I never saw the point of trying/Because I would only let you down”? What relationship does “Rave On”, the half-ballad that closes the album, have with its famous Buddy Holly namesake? And why, for the love of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, do Cults make such prominent use of the glockenspiel?

More than ever, music reviewing inclines towards the snap judgment. Attention spans are short. Today’s hot commodity can literally cool off in days. And even the critics who prefer to give in-depth, balanced assessments know that the easiest way to get people to read their work is to incite controversy somehow. In the New Media era, misdirected passion — and sometimes even outright duplicity — usually builds audience share.

That’s the reason I was tempted to suppress my reluctant affection for Cults. As I explained to a friend shortly after beginning my first draft, it’s not hard to regard the album as an example of what’s wrong with alternative music under the sign of Pitchfork. Cults’ all-too-rapid rise from making a few tracks available for free online to being the latest “it” musicians in the international music press hurts artists who have been working hard for years to get their music out. And the fact that Cults aren’t even on an indie label, having signed to Columbia’s latest attempt to rival Merge, Sub Pop and Matador, just reinforces the impression that they are taking shortcuts without having paid their dues.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that dissing Cults in a review would make me guilty of the same offense. After all, the whole point of naming this publication Souciant was to take a stand against the recklessness that prevails on the internet. I know as well as the next underpaid, overeducated intellectual trying to scrape out a living online that insouciance is the shortest path to success.

It’s a lot simpler to write reviews when you don’t let yourself think too hard about what you’re reviewing, when you can focus all your energy on coming up with memorable turns of phrases or button-pushing conclusions. But I’m even more tired of that sort of faux cultural analysis than I am of Brooklyn. I want to read the work of critics who take their time, who force themselves to test their initial reactions to a book, film or record, who aren’t afraid to admit that they are confused. In short, I want to read the work of critics who care too much about the state of contemporary culture to settle for the easy way out. And that’s also the work I want to write.

Let me be honest then. I still don’t think Cults is worthy of the hype it has generated. Even when I’m taking pleasure in the record, it leaves a troubling aftertaste, like one of those sodas made with invert sugar instead of the real thing. More broadly, I worry that it represents an ultimately destructive trend in alternative music, in which the fetishization of technological constraints — that AM radio effect — takes precedence over composition, so that even bands I love, like The Crystal Stilts, are defined more by their sound than than their songs.

I’m also bothered by those breathy teenybopper vocals for reasons that go beyond personal preference. One of the most refreshing aspects of The XX, who feature a male-female duo on vocals, is that their songs pulse with the timbre of grown-up sexuality. When I listen to Cults, by contrast, I feel like I’m trapped in an unseemly nightmare scored by Phil Spector, in which longing is everywhere and satisfaction perpetually deferred.

But maybe that’s what Cults are trying to achieve. Their debut often reminds me of the songs David Lynch deployed in projects like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, airy confections made portentous by context or Angelo Badalamenti’s throbbing score. Indeed, I could probably make a case for listening to Cults as a latter-day take on the Laura Palmer phenomenon, both within the diegesis of the show itself and in the mainstream culture that Lynch’s sensibility briefly managed to conquer.

As compelling as such an argument might be, I am hesitant to make it because my response to the record is so idiosyncratic. Could it be that the band’s real purpose — the one that inspired their choice of name and the sense of mystery they so pointedly cultivate — was to create the equivalent of a musical Rorschach test, a way for listeners to take stock of their own preoccupations and investments rather than trying to figure out the band’s?

I think it’s telling that the fine collaborative music blog Collapse Board — home of the incomparable Everett True — ended up running ten separate reviews of Cults, then compiled them all in a handy index, as if to confirm the impossibility of producing a definitive account of the album. Even if that seems like a cop out, it indicates a degree of caring that is all too rare these days.

For my part, I am increasingly befuddled by the sense, not only that I’m hearing what I need to hear in the album — as opposed to what Cults wanted to communicate — but that what I needed to hear is blatantly out of step with the band and the media environment from which it emerged. This is true of the David Lynch associations I discern, to a degree — although Follin and Oblivion were studying film before they embarked on their musical career — but even more so of the fact that Cults reminds me of Bruce Springsteen, even though none of the songs on the record sound much like him.

Yes, it is true that this past decade has witnessed The Boss’s rehabilitation in hipster circles, as the Arcade Fire, The National, The Hold Steady and other alternative bands have heaped praise upon him without ever fully emulating his approach. But those are rock acts with a big sound, not a duo who give the impression that they are content to explore the nooks and crannies of their own modestly scaled soundscape.

To be honest, it’s not that I hear actual Bruce Springsteen records in Cults, so much as that I hear the details that populate their sonic margins. If you could isolate a few of the many elements that comprise his calling card “Born To Run”, the ones that are mostly submerged in the final mix, you would have a decent approximation of the Cults’ sound. He wanted to pack the 1960s soul and pop songs he grew up on into his propulsive rock, even if it meant weighing down his music to the breaking point. Cults, on the other hand, act as though they want to turn his music inside out, exposing its innermost recesses to the light of day.

At least, that’s the best explanation I can come up with for why the glockenspiel is such a persistent presence on Cults. I’m sure there are plenty of others, including ones more in keeping with the band’s milieu. If I take a step back from my highly subjective perceptions, though, I can state with considerably more authority that, whatever their influences and intentions may be, Cults clearly take pride in the details that inspire idiosyncratic responses to their work. The trajectory of their career may make them seem to be more hype than substance, but the recorded evidence suggests otherwise.

I think that’s why I was first lured into writing a review that I’d vowed not to write and then found myself incapable of producing the pithily dismissive bon mots I imagined myself composing. For, no matter how much Cults have benefitted from the special mode of good fortune that this era of New Media makes possible, it’s clear that they care about things that can’t be compressed into a tweet.


  1. It wasn’t an inability to present a definitive Cults review that brought on the Cults reviewing extravaganza we had at Collapse Board. It was down to the simple fact that it was an album that struck us as one that demanded plenty of attention and if anything- too many of us would have wanted the task of reviewing it, so Everett did what he does best and organised a maverick approach. He’s a big fan of throwing the rule book out the window especially when original format is at stake. From where I’m standing, your review of the album is the one that is unable to come up with a definitive assessment of the Cults album and I think that’s why you perceived our Index in that light. Cults will make you enjoy it whether you like it or not (and you kind of don’t want to from what I have read). But at least you are big enough and wise enough to recognise that some things are not that simple and inspire mixed feelings even within the individual listener.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Everett is awesome. And so is Collapse Board, which is why I wanted to be sure to mention it in the piece. What I wanted to indicate was that the range of reviews seemed to demonstrate to me that it was impossible for a single person to do justice to the album’s mercurial quality, especially as manifested in the influences different listeners have heard in it.

      And, yes, I did struggle with the album at first because I am predisposed to be very wary of hype, in addition to being sick of Brooklyn. Living where I do, in the Arizona desert, it’s hard to deal with how far away much of what I care about is and, what is more, the fact that so much of what I care about is concentrated in such a small area of the country.

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