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cultsalbumSophomore albums find themselves in an awkward situation of trying to recapture the success of the debut while still being able to stand on their own, avoiding becoming a Xerox of everything that worked the first time. With Cults, their 2011 debut rode on a wave of buzz following the viral success of “Go Outside” that made the band a household name before a record deal was even signed. If a shakeup was needed to recapture the mystique of their first release, Cults got exactly that as duo Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion entered the studio for the first time since the dissolution of their romantic relationship.

The resulting album, Static, is a far more personal and introspective work than the duo’s eponymous introduction. It is a breakup album through and through, but done so in a very Cults way, which is to say that the heartache is masked by thick walls of reverb. Cults’ densely layered chamber pop serves as the perfect antidote for the overt sentimentality that usually plagues breakup records. Follin’s voice, though lovely and deceptively powerful, isn’t particularly emotive, just as Oblivion’s guitar is washed out to the point of draining all traces of soul. The emotion-stripped sound contrasts Follin’s pained lyrics, giving Static the distance to view the breakup more as a concerned friend than as a lover immersed in the sorrow of regret.

Much of Static is comprised of mid-tempo pop, a massive wall of sound buoying Follin’s impish voice. A few stand-out tracks stray from that mold, though. “I Can Hardly Make You Mine” is Cults’ catchiest track to date, with a dirty grunge riff anchoring Follin’s recounting of that moment when the end of the relationship seems imminent. In “High Road,” Follin second-guesses the big decisions over a danceable post-punk groove. The optimistic bounce of “We’ve Got It” serves as counterpoint to its bleak message.

While the dichotomy between sound and content steers Static comfortably away from tearjerker kitsch, it also makes otherwise impassioned themes less engaging. The result is a collection of good but easily overlooked lo-fi pop with only a few breakthrough moments of brilliance. For better or worse, Static is much more subtle than its predecessor; it is an album more concerned with tone and story than with laying out playful pop hooks.

Static is best exemplified by its third track, “Always Forever.” Though on its surface it is a love song (“you and me always forever”), there’s something unsettling beneath the prom dance vibe. Perhaps it’s the idea of Follin pleading “you know you’ve got me in your pocket” or perhaps it’s simply because the song is surrounded by so many tales of heartbreak. Though the lyrics pretend to be optimistic about the relationship, the unnerving subtext permeating the song and the entire album is that love can be as hurtful as it is liberating, often at the same time. Maybe the truth is that Static is emotionally ambiguous just like many relationships and just like with relationships, it takes a little distance to make sense of things.

 

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