Billy Duffy has said that he loves making new music and sees it as a vital thing for any band to do, but also that the Cult don't need to simply knock out albums any more, so they can take their time and focus on quality rather than frequency. They're certainly not prolific lately, this twelfth album arriving six years after its predecessor, Hidden City, and it's only their fifth so far this millennium. It certainly feels crafted, the grooves that they're so good at generating subtler than I remember here but just as deep. More than once, I felt a little underwhelmed by a song only to realise that I was totally into it by the time it finished. A second listen elevates this album considerably.
"Forget what you know" sings Ian Astbury at the start of the album but not that's not particularly good advice. Beyond those subtler grooves, suggesting that the band simply isn't interested in hit singles any more, this sounds like the Cult, at least if we think of their entire career rather than a brief period when they were massively commercially successful. Jim Morrison is there in Astbury's voice, as he always was, long before he toured with Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek in 2002. He's less dominant here, though, because David Bowie and Iggy Pop and even Peter Murphy are there this time too and they aren't hiding.
Fans who only know the Cult from Electric and Sonic Temple may be surprised by a post-punk song like Impermanence, but that sound has always been there, all the way back to their indie days as a post-punk goth band called the Southern Death Cult. This one sits somewhere in between Bauhaus and Duran Duran, which is a distance from the polished hard rock of Wild Flower or Love Removal Machine, but it shouldn't shock anyone who knows more than the big hits. I was actually surprised more by the orchestration on Outer Heaven and the title track, because that takes them in a very different direction.
Astbury channels Bowie on Outer Heaven but he's more like Nick Cave on Under the Midnight Sun, which closes out the album. The way the orchestra builds and swirls makes that song develop into Bond theme territory, which definitely isn't what I was expecting. I could almost see the stunts and explosions behind however much of this song they'd be able to cram into the trailer. Maybe I ought to forget what I know, after all.
And maybe I shouldn't rely on what I think I know now, after a couple of times through, as it's clear to me that this is a serious grower of an album that will reward the listener who digs deep. It isn't so impenetrable that what you get out is commensurate to the effort you put in, but it's an album to pay attention to. Listen to this as background music and it'll remain too polite to enforce itself, but take a deeper dive and you'll find gold everywhere.
Right now, after a couple of listens, I think my favourite song is Knife Through Butterfly Heart, the longest song here at six minutes. It starts softly, with a perky acoustic guitar and subdued vocals, but boy does this one build! Everything here feels exquisitely crafted, but this song feels like it was given a little extra time than the rest. That's a deceptively light guitar to open and a patient build to take us to where we're going to go. It doesn't heavy up until almost two minutes in, when a dark undercurrent joins in that sounds like it's a cloudy cello. It ends with insane care. A Cut Inside may be the only track fighting for top spot and that's an extra-subtle one too.
I should add that, if it's holding as my favourite, that doesn't mean I want to keep playing it over. It isn't a beer of a song that we just want to keep downing, like some of those eighties hits that keep us moving every single time they play. It's a fine scotch of a song that we can sip and savour when a moment feels right. There aren't any beers of songs here at all, though the openers feel about as close as the album gets. Mirror would be top of that list, though it's also full of subtleties, and it's not a long way down to Vendetta and Give Me Mercy, subtler songs again but still with firm hooks of their own.
So subtle is the word of the day, I guess, but that's certainly no bad thing in my thinking. I like this album and I can see myself sitting back on an afternoon here and there and letting it seep into my soul.