The Cult, ‘Under the Midnight Sun’: Album Review

The Cult has always defied easy categorization. For nearly 40 years, the West Yorkshire band’s driving creative force has been the push and pull of singer Ian Astbury’s post-punk spiritualism and guitarist Billy Duffy’s arena-rock histrionics. This musical yin and yang resulted in a triptych of classic albums — 1985’s Love, 1987’s Electric and 1989’s Sonic Temple — that ran the gamut from goth rock to quasi-glam metal, and it showed the Cult’s ability to adapt to changing musical trends without becoming beholden to them, keeping fans on their toes all the while.

On Under the Midnight Sun, their 11th album and first since 2016’s Hidden City, the Cult incorporates both sides of this musical duality, with Astbury’s esoteric musings getting a slight edge. The album title was inspired by the band’s 1986 performance at Finland’s Provinssirock festival, where they basked in the titular midnight sun during summer when the sun doesn’t set north of the Arctic Circle. “People are laying on the grass, making out, drinking, smoking,” Astbury recalled. “There were rows of flowers at the front of the stage from the performances earlier that evening. It was an incredible moment.”

Across its eight tracks, Under the Midnight Sun evokes this ethereal phenomenon via Duffy’s shimmering, reverb-washed guitars and Astbury’s gravelly, vibrato-laden baritone. Producer Tom Dalgety (Pixies, Ghost) gives the LP a crisp, nervy sheen, allowing cymbal crashes, propulsive tom rolls and nimble bass lines to bend the listener’s ear without obstructing the band’s chief melodic duo. Duffy covers a vast sonic terrain, dishing out crunchy rock ‘n’ roll chords and cavernous single-note leads in equal measure. Album opener “Mirrors” and lead single “Give Me Mercy” soar thanks to these glistening six-string showcases, conjuring the yearning, melancholy grandeur of Love cuts like “Nirvana” or “Rain.” Asbury remains as cryptic as ever, imploring listeners to “Watch the butcher’s knife / In his trembling hand / The end of a species / The shimmering veil.”

It all sounds terrific from a technical standpoint, but too often, Under the Midnight Sun gets stuck in one gear, abounding with the galloping, midtempo grooves and oddly restrained choruses. Astbury, in particular, seems either unwilling or unable to unleash the ferocious, lusty howl heard on classics like “Fire Woman” and “Lil’ Devil,” and even late-career cuts like 2012’s “Honey From a Knife.”

The dynamic power ballad “Knife Through Butterfly Heart” and haunting, orchestral title track offer welcome changes of pace, but Under the Midnight Sun is sorely missing a sleazy, chest-beating arena-rock anthem a la “New York City” or “Wild Hearted Son.” This is a stately, dependable, grown-up rock album made by 40-year veterans — certainly a worthy addition to the Cult catalog, but lacking the energy and eccentricity that made the band so compelling in its prime.

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