The Cult: Love
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"She Sells Sanctuary" by The Cult
The context: Over the course of more than 25 years, The Cult has reinvented itself well beyond the point of self-parody, but when Love came out in 1985, the band was still in its quasi-Goth, proto-alternative, pre-cock-rock stage. The seeds for its eventual undoing—commercial miscalculation, rampaging egos, personal strife—lie in Love's 10 tracks, but had yet to undermine what came out of the speakers. That came later, but Love shows The Cult in top form. It would help define the sound of alternative rock in the following decade.
The greatness: Two elements have always defined The Cult: Ian Astbury's soaring vocals, and Billy Duffy's guitar. Without either, the music wouldn't work, and Love found both of them hitting their sweet spots. Duffy never met a guitar overdub he didn't like, but Love is relatively restrained in that department. The guitars sound full, but leave breathing room, unlike the serrated hard-rock blasts on 1989's Sonic Temple. Duffy keeps the wanking to a minimum (aside from the endless solos in the wah-heavy "Phoenix"), and shows an impeccable sense for stealthy melodies that are catchy, but not too poppy. The bands that heralded the alterna-rock revolution of the early '90s took a similar melodic-but-edgy approach, but by that time, The Cult had turned into something else entirely—and it wasn't pretty.
Defining song: Although "Rain" produced the album's biggest hit, the penultimate track, "She Sells Sanctuary," is Love's—and The Cult's—most enduring song. Duffy abandons all restraint, layering swaths of guitar to create a striking wall of sound that gives the song its foundation and its hooks. It's hard to imagine any other singer besides Astbury in this song, as his wail sounds custom-created for "Sanctuary." The unremarkable drums and bass are relegated to the most utilitarian of roles; they do their part, but nothing more. And that makes complete sense: The Cult was always, for better or worse, The Astbury And Duffy Show. With Love, it was for the better.