Much of Cults’ initial appeal hinged on mystery, laced with a creeping uneasiness: The digital 7-inch with a December 23, 2012 street date; the Jim Jones sermon embedded in the sunny single “Go Outside”; the fact that the male half of the duo cribbed his stage name from the television-bound Marshall McLuhan surrogate in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The medium of “Go Outside” was pure 1960s pop, but the message traced its roots back to the willful obscurity of the ’80s underground.
That’s a pretty good postmodern joke, considering the immediacy of Cults’ self-titled debut. The record entices with familiar, well-trod sounds, offering a low-budget pastiche of the Motown sound, Phil Spector-directed girl groups, doo-wop, hip-hop, and shoegaze. The dichotomy of “Go Outside” colors the entirety of Cults, however, as potential summer-soundtrack staples like “You Know What I Mean” and “Bumper” reveal themselves as representations of unstable, splintered psyches. It’s like someone ratcheted the outlooks of The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” or The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)” to near-suicidal levels of desperation.
Of course, none of that would work if core members Madeline Follin and Brian O’Blivion? wielded the shaky hands implied by their lyrics. They’re bolstered here by co-producer Shane Stoneback, a buzz-band whisperer who worked his magic on previous efforts by Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells. He could’ve pushed Follin and O’Blivion a little harder—the record’s overuse of vocal samples from cult leaders and glimmering keyboard patches nearly undercuts the propulsive “Oh My God”—but then the record might come off as the work of a Spector-like (or Jim Jones-esque) Svengali. Instead, Cults is an endlessly self-assured debut, exposing a budding creative force with a sense of history and a rebellious streak. Long live the new flesh.