I can’t believe it’s been six years since the Cult’s last album, Hidden City. As Dylan sang, “time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.” When a band I really like waits that long between LPs, and they all seem to wait that long between albums these days, I worry that my anticipation will get the better of me. Sometimes when we let our anticipation run wild we can be disappointed. I know that happens to my buddy Arkansas Joel every time U2 puts out a new LP, but then they did hit a rough patch there for a while so that’s understandable. The Rock Chick was disappointed with Unlimited Love from the Chili Peppers, released earlier this year but again, that was anticipation fueled by Frusciante’s return. I actually liked that album… But for every LP we’ve been disappointed by there are many albums that utterly satisfy – Ozzy’s Patient Number 9 or Billy Idol’s new EP The Cage were both wonderful recently released albums.
And yet, even knowing the Cult would likely deliver, I too was worried about that old monster, anticipation. My excitement for the new album was given a shot of jet fuel only a few weeks ago when I saw the Cult live here in KC at the Uptown Theater. It was a great, great show. I feared that anticipation would somehow cloud how I felt about the album. Then I saw that the album was only eight songs long. That’s what, barely over a song a year since the last record. I heard rumors that it was all pretty “midtempo” or “monochromatic.” Critics were a bit “meh.” And yet as I’ve spent the last four or five days listening to nothing but Under The Midnight Sun – a title inspired by a show they played in Finland where the sun was up all night – all I can think about the Cult (Ian Astbury, vocals; Billy Duffy, guitar; John Tempesta, drums; and I’m unclear who played bass… Grant Fitzpatrick may have played on the LP, Charlie Jones is touring with them) is “My God, they delivered.” The Tom Dalgety produced Under The Midnight Sun is a wonderful, nuanced, spiritual listening experience.
Inevitably when folks talk about the Cult, they’re thinking of their late 80s heyday when they released a trio of iconic albums: Love (1985), Electric (1987) and of course, Sonic Temple (1989). But back in those days, toward the end of my college party experience and the beginning of my corporate, first job exile in Arkansas, I wasn’t paying any attention to new rock n roll. I was immersed in the past. I was listening to stuff from the 60s (the Beatles, The Band) or the 70s (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Faces, and the Allman Brothers). It’s like I felt I had to catch up on all the music that had passed before I started listening to rock n roll. And admittedly after my corporate masters exiled me to Ft Smith, Arkansas – something I’ve never forgiven them for – my main conduit to new rock was MTV. All hard rock bands basically made the same video so I became numb to the then current music… I should have been paying attention, especially to the Cult.
It wasn’t until I met the Rock Chick that I was turned onto the Cult. The first LP they put out in the new millennium, while I was actually paying attention, was Beyond Good And Evil. My main experiences with their music have been with their latter career. Don’t get me wrong, I love those late 80s masterpieces. I saw them on both the recent tours for Love and Electric when they played those albums in their entirety. But beyond that I have really enjoyed everything they’ve put out since Beyond Good And Evil. To gear up for the release of Under The Midnight Sun I put on Born Into This, not Electric. And so because of that, shall we call it, delayed perspective on the Cult I tend to look at their new albums in the perspective of what they’ve done since 2000 vs what they did from ’85 to ’89. And frankly I think 1991’s Ceremony deserves to be in the conversation as well – it’s a super album but Kurt Cobain and grunge killed everything that came before it including Ceremony.
Yes, I will admit I was disappointed we only got eight tracks on the new album. It is, as advertised, a mostly midtempo experience. There are two wonderful ballads that serve as great change of pace moments. And yet despite any hard rock anticipation I was fostering, I find this music utterly captivating. While the music is immediately identifiable as the Cult it only has echos of stuff they’ve done in the past. I feel like this is new ground for them. I’m like most Cult fans, I’d have loved a screaming rocker like “Dirty Little Rock Star,” or “Rise” to pump things up a bit… or yes a “Fire Woman” would be nice. But that’s just not where these guy’s heads are at. I would have thought they could have pulled a few more tracks together – at least two but I’d have loved four more to get us to 12, the standard CD length – and had they done that and made those additional tracks screaming rockers this album would likely rank amongst their best. In my mind, it still does rank quite highly.
There is a passion and urgency to the songs on UTMS. Billy Duffy is really the hidden star here. His guitar is less aggressive than what I’m used to but his playing is shimmering, smokey guitar riffs and solos. Maybe because half the band was in England and Astbury was in New York there’s a yearning in this music. Although it’s mostly a spiritual or universal yearning. A hope that we can come together on this planet. “Give me mercy, a new language.” That line, “a new language,” really resonated with me. It’s like we’ve forgotten about compassion and love and this music is a spiritual touchstone to guide us back. There is a certain majestic quality to this music that bores into my brain. Lyrically it’s as if Astbury – whose baritone is in fine form, what a voice! – is looking at the universe and needs to express the existential angst. And did I mention his voice? One of the best in all of rock n roll.
There were two songs released prior to the album coming out. I reviewed “Give Me Mercy” already so I won’t beat that horse but the more I hear it the better I like it. As mentioned, the lyric “Give me mercy, a new language, give me mercy, love will find you” is like a lost Buddhist mantra. The second track they put our prior to the album release was “A Cut Inside” which is probably the heaviest riffing, hardest rocking song here. Even I’ll admit it’s more of a simmer than an explosion but I still really connect with this song. It was both great in concert and in the car… some tunes just have to be cranked up while you’re speeding on the parkway… “A Cut Inside” has a soaring chorus, “Caught in a lie, tears in my eyes…” I love Tempsta’s drumming on the track. He now may be the longest tenured drummer in the Cult.
“Mirror” is the opening track and it sets the sound palette for much of the rest of the record. Duffy’s plaintive guitar weaves in and around of Tempesta jungle drumming. Billy plays a great solo on this track as well… Ian’s baritone is sensational, “Love, love, love, forget what you know…” “Vendetta X” may be my favorite track here. It’s got a slightly, dare I say, funky riff/drums thing going on. It’s got a low key intensity and kind of reminds me of some stuff on Dreamtime (for you really long time Cult fans). Astbury keeps singing “Sucking on a dirty blade, fighting over Love and Hate,” and you believe him the way he spits out the words. “Impermanence” is another great track in that midtempo vein. “Outer Heaven” is slightly mellower, but I wouldn’t call it a ballad. It starts with a nice wash of strings. Billy works up a bit of a squall on the track over Tempesta’s now galloping drums. That one ends as almost a religious chant. It’s another highlight here.
As mentioned there are two ballads on the record and they’re some of my favorite moments. “Knife Through A Butterfly Heart” ranks amongst their best ballads ever – right up there with “Edie (Ciao Baby)” and “Nico,” two of my favorites. It’s all haunting acoustic guitar – which we don’t get to regularly hear on a Cult album – and strings. Billy does lay in some nice electric notes weaving around the edges of the track until the end when he delivers the killer solo. It’s another personal favorite on this record. The title track, which ends the album is also a highlight. It’s a very cinematic track. It has strings that had me thinking about James Bond and the Rock Chick thinking about the show Dexter. It also has a lot of acoustic guitar. I’ve heard it described as a “spaghetti Western of a song,” and I get where they get that description. I just think it’s a cool. “Under midnight sun, with creatures of the wild, lost in love’s illusion, all will fade in time.” Damn, that’s some heavy stuff right there.
This is a really great album. Don’t let any of your expectations or anticipation get in your way on this one. It maybe a grower for some people. Put this one on and turn it up, pour something strong and let the lyrics and guitar was over you. It’s not going to rattle your fillings but it may just move your heart. I’m just happy we’ve finally got some new Cult to listen to.