There’s a streak of malice in Madeline Follin’s pink-frosted vocals. On Static, the second album from Manhattan duo Cults, she teases it out more than ever. Since they started touring their self-titled debut on Columbia, Follin and her bandmate Brian Oblivion suffered the kind of strain that’s common to musicians who juggle a music project and a romantic relationship at the same time. In the spring of 2012, Follin and Oblivion ended their romantic partnership, then teamed up again as Cults to record Static. Like countless other acts that have undergone the same reconfiguration, the two sound more in sync than ever as friends. Under Ben Allen’s production hand, Static presents a crisper, leaner Cults, one less indebted to the trappings of lo-fi and more confident in its own pop muscle.
It sounds like Follin’s voice has finally found its home on their sophomore album. In place of the glockenspiels and the loose acoustic strums on Cults, Static pulses with itchy electricity. The record’s lead single, “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”, rolls on a confident beat and a jittery bass line. The rhythm section’s firmed up; It’s not just the hard container for washes of fuzz, but a living, animating force in itself. With Allen’s help, Cults keeps the threadbare charms of their sound while fleshing it out into something deeper, denser, more whole.
Post-breakup, the soda pop sweetness of songs like “Always Forever” now rings a little ironic: “You and me, always forever/ we could stay alone together,” Follin sings. On “High Road”, the pair duet, delineating a series of mutual regrets as keys and drums tumble over each other like Jacob’s ladders. “You can’t fix that,” Follin seems to conclude about her past mishaps at the end of “Were Before”.
Ultimately, that’s the genre of “breakup album” that Static hits. Follin sounds more assertive here, but it doesn’t come from a place of bitterness. Sure, there’s hurt, especially on the swooping and toothy “So Far” (“I wonder how you sleep at night”). But she’s genuinely confident. She ruminates over her mistakes and could-have-beens, only to forgive herself for them and move on. By side B, Static breaks neatly from describing the disintegration of a romantic partnership to outlining the process of coming into your own as an individual. Since her break from Oblivion, Follin has been living as a single person for the first time since reaching adulthood. On Static, she comes to grips with it.
The buoyant and wonderful “Keep Your Head Up” sums that headspace perfectly. This isn’t a song about blind optimism; it’s optimistic in the face of a whole lot of pain and the knowledge that even the good things don’t usually work out like you planned. It’s about deriving your worth from yourself, not your partner. Oblivion’s not singing here, but his instrumentals blast up to meet Follin at the new heights she achieves. It sounds like they’re both doing okay.
Static might only begin to get at the dark stuff hinted at by what Cults choose to call themselves (with a name like Brian Oblivion in the lineup, I’m always hoping for some grade A creepiness from these two, but they’re still more Wes Anderson than David Cronenberg), but the record reveals a surprising maturity inside the duo’s jeweled fuzz pop. Closer “No Hope” fixes in on the here and now, tossing out plans for the future, living to stay in the moment. Despite what the title connotes, there’s no self-pity in here. “No hope for me now, and I’m better off that way,” asserts Follin.
Cults find themselves at a transition point on album two, as they move from their previous jangly sounds into something bigger. On Static, they arrive at a place where they’re able to sustain new layers of complexity across their songs. Alternately defeated and determined, lovesick and heartbroken, gloomy and sanguine, Cults come out stronger on the other side.
Essential Tracks: “Always Forever”, “So Far”, and “Keep Your Head Up”