Cults made the most of the mystery surrounding them, turning the three songs they posted on their Bandcamp page into major-label record deal in just over a year. Of course, it helped that one of those songs was “Go Outside,” a piece of pop so sunny and wistful that it only made the question “who is this band?” even more pressing. However, the more important question was: could they sustain that kind of beauty over an entire album? The expectations for Cults were nearly as high as the level of secrecy around the band in its early days, and the revelation that the group revolved around New York-based guitarist Brian Oblivion and vocalist Madeline Follin did little to dispel the enigma. However, it does explain why Cults' sound is so focused: they explore and subvert early-‘60s pop, swathing Follin's girl group-ready vocals in trippy sounds and samples, channeling the unearthly quality of some of that era’s music and its chiaroscuro mix of innocence and mortality. Just how much Follin and Oblivion love ‘60s pop is evident in Cults' details, like the handclaps, pounding pianos, and splashy reverb on “Bad Things,” which sounds like Follin is singing in the rain. The best example of their music is still the song that started it all. “Go Outside” embellishes Follin’s seemingly simple wish to go out and live her life with sparkling glockenspiels on one hand and Jonestown leader Jim Jones saying “To me, death is not a fearful thing; it’s living that's treacherous” on the other. Nothing else on Cults is quite as striking, though the contrast of Follin's childlike voice and dark words casts her as a girl in trouble on “Never Heal Myself” and “Most Wanted,” where she sings, “what I most want is bad for me, I know.” With an approach this unique, Cults spend most of their debut album walking a fine line between distinctive and gimmicky, and between innocent and simplistic, and sometimes they stumble. The crystalline production occasionally lays too much bare in their music -- clarity and mystery are strange bedfellows -- yet “Never Saw the Point” and “Rave On” feel overwrought. And despite the shadows in their songs, Cults' sugary side prevails, becoming childish instead of childlike on “Oh My God”'s taunting melody. Oblivion's duets with Follin, “Abducted” and “Bumper,” undercut some of the album’s hyper-sweetness, and indeed Cults is a bit like a sugar rush: exhilarating at first, and then exhausting. Still, the sounds and ideas they play with are too intriguing to dismiss entirely, even if some of the mystery around them is gone.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares