Over the course of the last 15 years of playing, listening to and talking about music, I’ve come to realize that there really is no such thing as a timeless record. If a record measures anything, it’s precisely time that it measures. Some records are mirrors of a time, showing us as we were when it came out. Do you remember New York in 2001/2002? Put on the Strokes’ Is This It and you do. Even if you weren’t there. Other records are bellwethers, predicting the future and helping to usher it in. While Tricky’s Pre-Millenium Tension was just that, Radiohead’s OK Computer had further-reaching implications, accurately diagnosing a plugged-in isolation that would last and deepen throughout the next decade. (And, creepily enough, they also depicted anxiety over plane safety— Stanley Donwood’s art took on a different significance after September 11).
Maybe it’s artists’ connection to the subconscious that gives them a glimpse of our collective unconscious. Or maybe they’re just expressing what everyone else is already thinking. Either way, no great record can be divorced from its time and not lose something vital. On September 4th of last year, Cult of Youth, a young Brooklyn band who play what I’d call post-industrial neo-folk, released Love Will Prevail and it is a quintessential record of our time. Unlike the aforementioned records, Love Will Prevail is neither a mirror, nor a harbinger. It’s a courtroom and our whole era is on trial.
Sean Ragon, Cult of Youth’s charismatic frontman, plays both the defense and prosecution, with the supporting musicians playing both the Expert Witnesses and the courtroom gallery. Yes, the record is split: fractured and polarized. The subject? Just a small question of human nature in the current age. What will prevail? Order, intellect, compassion? Or strength, animal instinct, Darwinian cruelty? What will be left of us? A pastoral utopia or a crumbling industrialized wasteland? Are we progressive in our thinking or conservative? Generous or self-serving?
The stark duality of the argument is matched by the push and pull in the composition of the record. Ragon starts the record by crooning softly against a lonely acoustic guitar on “Man and Man’s Ruin.” As he walks through the opening passages of his meditation on the true nature of man, the instruments begin to follow him like a crowd gathering around a speaker. Drums mimic his rhythmic steps, violins swell with rush-hour urgency and trumpets issue a call for other voices to join Ragon in proclaiming the nature of man: “a dog on a leash.”
The song is a perfect opener. Not only does it set the tone and present the themes of the record, it establishes the rules of the genre, and the unique characteristics of the band. Then, in under four minutes, it dismantles those conventions, measure by measure until the song climaxes at a point that’s the exact inversion of its start. Along the way it also plays out the duality that’s the central paradox of Cult of Youth: a fully functioning live band that’s also the studio project of one person. By starting with one guitar and one voice, then ending with a full band, orchestra and group vocal, “Man & Man’s Ruin” begins as Sean Ragon and ends as Cult of Youth. It begins as a self-involved monologue and ends as a communal mantra. It begins as a conservative genre piece of neo-folk/post-industrial and ends as a transcendent rule-bending burst of symphonic joy. It begins by lamenting the sorry state of man and ends raging against man’s self-destruction.
From there, the record unfolds the argument in nine different directions, successfully for the most part. “Golden Age” cheerfully marks the end of humanity’s renaissance — “An age is at its end, but another shall begin… the golden age,” Ragon sings — and brings a real pop sensibility to the traditionally gloomy atmosphere. “Prince of Peace” pushes hard against the limit of both genre and goodwill, with sweet XTC-style post-punk harmonies and Beach Boys back-ups. Just as the album seems to be making too much of humanity’s better qualities, “Garden of Delights” marches in sharply with a wall of discordant noise at its side. Ragon has all the warmth of a drill sergeant, shouting out the world’s failings: “Man is an animal that strives to evolve but there are some people who don’t feel that resolve/And cruelty in nature of fascism pure, A reflection of man that we’re forced to endure.”
It all leads up to the album’s finest moment. All the clatter and wailing dissolves into the beautiful, romantic resolve of “…And love will prevail”. It’s a rare moment of hope, peace, light… love. If Cult of Youth are appealing to a higher power on behalf of humanity, this would be the strongest case in our defense.
Almost every song on Love Will Prevail has a “wow” moment and they’re all different. The record is as ambitious as they come. It grapples with what humanity will be like in the near future. Because surely, we stand at the edge of a paradigm shift. The world still has light, but it’s light seen through the window of a very dark room. Our country still has factories but they’re empty and crumbling. We still have voices but our voices have been distorted through bad connections and digital compression. Our politics are divided and radicalized. The 1% are getting richer, while the 99% are getting poorer. We are less ambiguous but more ambivalent.
That’s the language Cult of Youth speaks on Love Will Prevail. Even the fact that the record is in such a niche genre is indicative of the times as well. The democratization of information has given “the little guy” more of a voice than ever. This year’s defining records won’t come from the big bands or corporate labels.
Those who don’t hear this album now might someday come across it in a record bin, if those things will still exist, or find it on Spotify, or through some technology not even dreamed of yet. And when they do, they’ll hear what it sounded like to be alive in 2012.