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Cults made their name in black and white. A pair of film school dropouts who burst onto the New York scene with a perfect single and a darkly retro sound, the band’s first two albums play like noirish documentaries on a lost girl group. Four years after Static, Cults returns with Offering, an exciting collection of songs bursting with heart, confidence, shimmering melody and buzzing life. The time off has given the band new energy and new ideas–Cults are working in Technicolor now.
The core duo remains the same. Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion, both 28, still live in New York. They still finish each other’s thoughts and still share a love of catchy music and black humor (this is a band that sampled cult leader Jim Jones on their first hit). But the pair have put some blood on the tracks since their breakout debut: they’ve toured the world, built a devoted audience, survived a breakup, grown up in green rooms, parted ways with their old label and made a home of their new one. After the whirlwind of Static died down, Follin and Oblivion made a conscious decision to shift gears:
“I feel like we stepped into a tour van when we were 21, and basically didn’t get out of it for the next few years,” Oblivion says. “We wanted to give ourselves some space to have normal lives, and wait until there was something new to say.”
“It was exciting, because writing stopped feeling like a homework assignment. I was able to sit down and do it only when I wanted to,” says Follin. “These songs are less art projects, less thinking ‘this is a heartbreak song, what would Lesley Gore do?’ and more reflective of things that have happened in our own lives.”
Cults took their time, going through a few dozen discarded demos before arriving on a pair of songs that felt special– the rollicking, sweet-but-dark “Right Words” and the buzzy earworm “Recovery.” Once they had a direction, Follin and Oblivion enlisted longtime engineer Shane Stoneback to help guide the sessions, working bit by bit, never rushing, letting the material develop naturally.
Offering will thrill ride-or-die Cults fans. Songs like “Natural State” and “Good Religion” balance on the same after-hours wall of sound that brought the band its early audience. The title track, a rolling goth-ed out anthem for the kids in the back of class is surely, somewhere in an alternate universe, soundtracking an 80s prom movie directed by Jim Jarmusch.
But Offering goes places Cults haven’t gone before. Pink Floyd was a big inspiration, freeing up the band to try new song structures and play with vintage synths, notably on the gorgeous, aching “With My Eyes Closed.” “I had the classic high school discovery of Pink Floyd, only I was 24,” laughs Oblivion. “I was in the back of the tour van, listening to Dark Side of The Moon on headphones for the first time, and I turned to the band and said ‘guys. GUYS.”
New Wave was also a touchstone, you can hear The Motels and Gary Numan’s influence on chugging pop gems “Clear From Far Away” and “I Took Your Picture.” None of these gestures are accidental, the band has developed a confidence in the studio and a strong, full sound. Gone are the days of chancing upon Garageband alchemy; Offering is the work of two artists who know what they want and how to make it happen.
Offering also marks the beginning of a more collaborative phase for Cults. The pair have always traded ideas, but for the first time they sat down to jam out ideas together in a room. Follin, who has always written her own parts, came into her own as instrumentalist during the Offering sessions, playing drums and keyboards throughout. Her equal partnership with Oblivion flies in the face of a far-too-common industry assumption that women are passive participants in their own art.
After three years of work in New York, LA, San Francisco, in studios and sweaty living rooms, the band finished the bulk of recording. But it was a classic “last day in the studio” demob-happy session that gave the album its opener and title track, a hope-in-darkness song that Oblivion calls “one of the most outward-looking things we’ve done, it’s a lifeline.” Follin adds: “we both decided independently of each other that it had to be the title.”
“These songs have both instability and solutions for how to deal with instability,” Oblivion says. “I think my favorite lyric is from “Took Your Picture”: Tinge of blue/To the end/left our hearts/With regrets/I’m learning. That’s as close as you get to a thesis statement for the album.”
“We’re in a happier place,” Follin adds.
“I mean, the last track on our last album was called ‘No Hope,’” Oblivion says, and they both laugh. “The first track on this record is called ‘Offering.’ That pretty much says it.”
Written by Fred Nicolaus