By Nicholas Foster
One of the hardest feats in modern-day music is creating a worthy follow-up to a breakthrough first album. There is pressure to do the seemingly impossible: the band must both grow and change, while retaining the same short-list of positives that propelled the first record to success.
It is a trick many bands find themselves unable to turn (looking at you, Sleigh Bells), especially those who may-or-may-not have pigeonholed themselves the way twee-pop ministars Cults did on their eponymous debut. Luckily, their newly-released “Static” claws out just enough good moments to be classified as a success, temporarily absolving them from one-and-done infamy.
The most important note to be made about “Static” is the distinct mood change from its predecessor. That’s because “Static” is, quite literally, a breakup album—Cults’ two members, Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion, split up after months of touring in support of “Cults,” their first release. The cloud that hangs over “Static,” both in the production and the makeup of the songs themselves, makes the whole record feel slightly woozy.
It is clear that “Static” is more than just a title here: it’s a musical goal. In an interview with Pitchfork Media, an online music publication, Oblivion explained, “When we were making this record, we put a couple of broken TVs on the mixing board and we’d turn the lights off, stare at them, and listen to the songs to see if the glow felt right.” And true to form, much of the album is hazier than anything Cults has done before.
Opener “I Know,” for instance, is a minute and a half of dreamy guitar echo layered under Follin’s too-sweet soprano, quickly reaching untouched levels of psychadelia. It quickly gives way to the ferocious fist-pounding “I Can Hardly Make You Mine,” which has all the requisite thump-thump-thump you could want out of a lead single, playing background (and sometimes upstaging) Follin in all her lovesick glory.
Follin’s voice continues to be bubblegum-indie gold, but “Static” downplays the natural sugar in her voice in an effort to darken the mood. This has a couple of side-effects: most noticeably, it makes it almost impossible to understand what she is saying, but even more importantly it helps play up the full-band dynamic that “Static” brings to the table—an element “Cults” certainly did not have; it sounded very much like a record made by two lovers and a computer.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of having real drums on every song on the album, drums that thunder and crunch and mercilessly get in the way. On songs like “So Far” and “Shine a Light,” the drums are very nearly the main instrument, a focal point instead of a backing track. The bass, too, carries much of the melodic burden, with slick motion that gives many of the songs (“High Road,” the aforementioned “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”) depth and character.
That is not to say “Static”is without a good share of growing pains. There is not a hook here that matches the sheer brilliance of the first album, which was basically a masterclass in combining catchiness with quality. Consistency is an issue as well—not only are there a couple of throwaways here, like the clichéd “Keep Your Head Up” or the forgettable “We’ve Got It,” but the songs very rarely wow from beginning to end.
In addition, the reason for obscuring Follin’s vocals may be twofold. The lyrics here are largely just okay, sometimes conveying the frustrated lovelorn sentiments of youth, but often coming off as merely half-baked. It ends up not being too much of a drawback due to her gorgeous delivery and the unintelligibility of her words, but it is not in the album’s favor, either.
Another interesting development is their loss of complete originality, which is not necessarily a negative or positive. “Cults” seemed as though it was created in a vacuum—there did not seem to be a lot of good comparisons to what it sounded like, because no one had made a record quite that relentlessly sunny, even at it’s darkest moments.
On the other hand, “Static” is now moving onto trodden ground; in the middle of “High Road” comes four bars that sound airlifted out of an XX album, “Were Before” starts out unintentionally mimicking The National, and throughout, the whole of the albumfeels a little like it has been done before. This may dock them some points in the short term, but it does not have to. It is still a strong standalone record, regardless of how it may reference its contemporaries.
In the end, “Static”does not have the appeal that many might have expected after such a dynamic debut. But the band seems to be in a better position now than ever, having successfully dodged a true sophomore slump by adding intricacies while maintaining its pop sensibilities. If only all breakups were this enjoyable.