Monday, January 14, 2008

The Cult - "Born Into This" (Roadrunner 2007)

The Cult has always been a band striving to keep up with the vagaries of pop culture and adapt to the prevailing musical whims of the record buying public. Unlike a band like, say, Metallica, who has seemingly shifted with the tides without ever losing the core of what they are all about, The Cult has had to work at it, and it's noticable. They pulled it off with great panache for three records in the late 1980's. 1985's Love presented an infectious set of pop songs that incorporated both post-punk ethos and the neo-psychedelic sensibility that was making the rounds at that time. 1987's Electric, largely thanks to the almost preternatural ability of producer Rick Rubin to read shifts in consumer tastes, arrived on the forefront of the return of muscular, bare bones rock that would become championed by the likes of Guns 'n' Roses. Electric was a record comprised of catchy hook after catchy hook, each stretched out to song length. And it worked. Then enter 1989's Sonic Temple and producer Bob Rock. Any pretense toward post-punk was entirely gone by this point and the band had wholly embraced the hair metal revolution. The record still yielded some infectious hit songs (and the band was at their live performance peak at this time) but it was becoming apparent that the train was about to come off the rails. How many times can a band change its stripes without beginning to look wholly disingenuous? After this point The Cult lost me entirely.

This would all be academic if the songs were there, and frankly there were fewer and fewer memorable ones as the records rolled out. All of this may seem like a blowhard's history, but it's actually pretty pertinent to reviewing Born Into This.

Produced by Martin "Youth" Glover, known for his work with the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Crowded House, and Depeche Mode, Born Into This plays like a band trying to sound relevant without losing whatever cred it had accrued to itself in the past. With the post-punk revival in full swing you certainly find pervasive elements of that on the record. Of course, muscular, riffy rock is having a resurgence as well, so there is a liberal amount of muscular riffage injected as well. Sprinkle in some of the neo-neo-psychedelia (I guess?) floating around (Flaming Lips, anybody?) as well. Overlaying it all you have the ambient, dare I say New Wave, feel that a producer like Glover has made his signature. Somehow, beyond all reasonable sensibility, it works really well sonically. We're left with a record that certainly makes The Cult sound relevant and even pretty interesting after all this time.

There is a general formula in place for almost every song on the record, which consists of a sparse, driving, chunky verse building into a loud, layered, rocking chorus. Cult fans will recognize this as a standard Ian Astbury/Billy Duffy song construction that has served them pretty well across their career together. The tragedy here is that, while the formula may be in place, the hooky, memorable songs just aren't.

That's not to say the songs are necessarily bad. The title track has a nice groove reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain's Automatic era, and "Citizens" hearkens back to The Cult's own Love era. "Illuminated" and "Savages" could have been re-worked outtakes from Sonic Temple, and album closer "Sound of Destruction" is an inspired slab of rock 'n' roll that almost approaches The Cult at their finest.

On the other side of things you have the nearly unlistenable "Holy Mountain", an acoustic piece that comes out of nowhere and nearly lays you flat. Lyrics have never been Astbury's strong point - it's just never mattered because they were bellowed in his unique voice in the context of a great pop hook. However, "You're a wild thing, You say wild things, But much too wild, I think" over a flat sounding acoustic strum is damn near unbearable. The "hit" on the record, "Dirty Little Rockstar", is a weak reworking of "Wildflower" from Electric with none of its power and charm.

Born Into This isn't a terrible record. It's just not a terribly interesting one. It's a shame, knowing the kind of power The Cult are capable of. Here's hoping they'll harness that muse for their next attempt.

Rating: 2 out of 4

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