“Trials”, the opening track and second single from Cults‘ latest album Host, swaggers into view with a bass line that skulks along like the charismatic invader that vocalist Madeline Follin is singing of – “turning down the light / till you’re the only thing I see.” The taut strings that open and close the track in a somewhat grandiose flourish of spaghetti western nostalgia are just a sign of the new scale Cults are shooting for.
Here, on their fourth album, they’ve made some changes; Follin is revealing her own songs for the first time and they recorded using live instruments, something they hadn’t explored before. This new, more expansive and experimental output has been slowly coming since their 2011 breakout debut – and yet you’d be forgiven for missing the simpler synth-driven sound of their past.
“Masquerading” and “No Risk” are relatively stripped back and let Follin’s youthful lyrics stretch out, making them two of the most immediately engrossing tracks here – and, at under three minutes, they also happen to be two of the shortest tracks, which is no coincidence. It’s not that everything else is long – it’s that they’re boring.
It’s not all on these new elements, though. While the horn and string arrangements give a natural and more disturbing hue that works (especially on “8th Avenue”), it is sometimes Brian Oblivion’s overwhelming electronics that bury the emotional elements. This is best exemplified by “Spit You Out”, a churning clatter that – as much as it tries – ceases to go anywhere, which is ironic given the song’s subject matter of escaping those who pull you down.
Cults have always had a charm created largely by their simple sun-soaked retro sound that covered up the desperation and darkness of their lyrical content. That’s absolutely still here, and with the slow build of distortion on “Shoulders To My Feet” they’ve even managed to twist sound and lyrics together better than before. On this track, Follin considers a toxic relationship and the parasitic devotion we often give to those we don’t understand: “Shoulders to my feet you’re everything I need / if only I could quiet my mind.”
Host is a consistent record in its drive towards freedom, and both sound and lyrics embody that. At times this really allows them soar, and at others there’s the struggle to go it alone. It’s great to see Cults taking risks and pressing forward, but more than anything it makes you long for their past.