Review: “Offering,” Cults

The female-male duo’s latest album highlights a new era of indie pop

(Shawn Brackbill)

Early rock ’n’ roll promised revolution, and though it wasn’t televised, at long last the patriarchy of pop has been overthrown by an insurgent generation of women who have heard the founding credo (Fight the Man) and decided to fulfill its proclamation (perhaps literally). Men haven’t altogether forfeited, but many have seen the writing on the wall and joined forces with the new sovereigns, forging new models of rule for a more democratic age. Collaboration can take many forms, but few showcase the exciting sonic potential of power parity quite like the male-female duo. Consider Oh Wonder, Sleigh Bells, Chairlift, Sylvan Esso, and Tennis. All indie pop female-male duos, none quite alike.

Now Cults, the New York-based female-male combo of singer-drummer-keyboardist Madeline Follin and guitarist-vocalist Brian Oblivion, has emerged from the studio with the band’s third album and first in four years. Offering brings color to the group’s signature sound long stuck in monochrome.

Listen to the opening track, “Offering,” a goth-rock rouser with spirited lyrics that float and fade over major and minor chords. “Hanging at the end of the road,” Follin sings with double-tracked reverb, “Well I can make you an offering.” It’s ambivalent and tentative, an overture of gray for the partial-cloudiness of autumn. And it thoughtfully muddies the black-and-white clarity of “Static,” their 2013 record, which closed on the darker side: “No hope / No hope / No hope / For the wicked and all the guilt.”

“Offering” comes into its own on the second single, “I Took Your Picture,” a foot-stomper about “the photographs fading away.” Here, driven by a hypnotic bassline, Cults seems to apprehend their own apprehension. The song laments the erosive wash of time (“tinge of blue / to the end”) without succumbing to despair. Even “with regrets,” Follin cries, “I’m learning.” That tension, an awareness of aging, can be melancholic and still evidently ironic. “Good Religion,” another highlight, likens a breakup to a spiritual conversion. “I heard you found a new religion,” sings Cults, sans resentment, as if to a wayward fan who has moved onto new and no-worse music.

Just don’t expect poetry. Fits of emotional complexity can’t belie the duo’s continued betrothal to bathetic lyrics. (“Right words,” begins the song of the same name, “but I said ’em at the wrong time / even with the right words / knowing I can never change your mind.”) Trite false rhymes remind that indie pop is still pop, after all.

Musicians grow up just as politicians learn to govern: slowly, publicly, with one eye fixed on popular mandate. But growing pains and all, Follin and Oblivion have produced a mature work that’s less florid and more vivid, less intense and more earnest than their previous records. Don’t let the name deceive: Cults is learning to rule as a partnership, one durable and creative enough to weather — and help lead — the rock revolution.

(October 6, Omnian)

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