In an age when once-cute child stars pole dance on bulldozing equipment to promote their latest singles, one could be forgiven for thinking that pop has lost its soul. Young New York band Cults’ new album “Static,” to be released on Tuesday, manages to restore faith in the genre—it has a cool, lingering, and intimate sound, while still retaining the mainstream appeal that so many indie pop outfits are unable to find. Formed by New York University students Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin in 2010, Cults has kept up the fearless experimentalism and youthful, up-tempo catchiness of its first album.
Despite its title, though, “Static” also pushes the band in a new direction. For the most part, the happy-happy vibe exemplified by hit 2011 single “Go Outside”—which is complete with cute xylophone melodies and archive reportage sound-collages—has been replaced by a more understated feel. The lonely, crackly white-noise that fades out on the opening track “I Know” shows how Cults has begun to finesse its technique. Better still, with the overly quirky, self-aware effects tuned out, Follin’s gorgeous vocals shine. In “Always Forever,” brave, simple instrumentation allows her evocative, ethereal voice to dominate the track, resulting in a song so full of yearning that it almost becomes painful.
But it’s not only the vocals that Cults has amped up with “Static.” The addition of some killer electric guitar and heavier drum work is also a welcome change. In rocky tracks like “I Can Hardly Make You Mine,” Cults shows a newfound attitude, again repositioning itself away from the twee, melody-driven sweetness of its early work. It’s an evolution we’ve seen from indie outfits before (think MGMT, Maccabees, and Passion Pit). The difference is that Cults has kept all of the heartfelt outsider-angst that so often falls by the wayside when indie groups try to add oomph and polish their oeuvre.
Nearly every track, from the dancey “Keep Your Head Up” to the eerie “High Road,” is underpinned by raw emotion and an almost tragic sense of emptiness. Follin and Oblivion contrast groove-worthy beats and anthemic melodies with bleak synth and lyrics of loss—a powerful combination that’s simultaneously reminiscent of the moodiness of The xx and the epic pop of Lana Del Rey. “Static” is more emotionally and technically complex than your average indie pop album. Cults has proven not only that it has soul, but also that it knows how to express it to brilliant effect.