Things should have been going swimmingly for The Cult. Their album Electric had succeeded in becoming the biker-rock record they hoped it would be – raw, straight-ahead and helmed by a fledgling production wunderkind named Rick Rubin. It gained some necessary traction in the sales and recognition departments as well, based in part on the single “Love Removal Machine.” By the time the band went on the road, however, the future for the Cult looked grim. By most accounts, the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of frontman Ian Astbury, his hedonism and earth-child eccentricities becoming far too difficult for the rest of the band to absorb. The Japanese leg of the tour was nixed as Astbury’s proclivity toward destroying the instruments every night was becoming too costly to continue.
That they returned in 1989 with the album Sonic Temple is, then, some sort of miracle. That they were able to wrest some noteworthy rock anthems from the process is even more remarkable. Longtime bassist Jamie Stewart recorded on the album, but quit the band not long after completion. Guitarist Billy Duffy, having been stripped of his guitar pedals and sonic tricks by Rick Rubin, was relieved not only to have Sonic Temple‘s producer Bob Rock reinstate the pedals, but add string sections, walls of reverb and Iggy Pop, essentially undoing all the retrofitting Rubin placed on the band previously.
And Ian Astbury? Well, this is the man who would be Jim Morrison’s successor, so certain things remain consistent in his ouevre. The shamanistic posturing, the biker-bar swagger, his ability to pad a short and sweet lyric with nonsensical ad-libs and attaching a “baybeh” to almost any sentiment: they’re all on the album, but don’t knock it, because for the most part, it works. The reason it works is because when added to the hard-rock kick that most of the songs possess, the two halves become a whole that logic can’t divide. For instance, the big single of the album, “Fire Woman,” is not so far removed from AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Astbury doesn’t really need to go into deep, psychological detail about why his junk is on fire. It just is; she’s just turning him on, and that’s all there needs to be said. Does that diminish the song in any way? Not really because, after all, this is prime stripper-approved rock ‘n’ roll, itself only a euphemism for mattress endurance testing.
The big problem with the album is that it runs out of steam halfway. Side one has the hot hits with “Sun King,” “Fire Woman” and possibly the best thing the band ever did, the tribute to Edie Sedgwick “Edie (Ciao Baby),” while side two has the primo ass-kicker “Soul Asylum.” That’s the first song on side two, though, and the rest of the album never gets back up to speed. You can argue that “Soul Asylum” is just that strong a track, and it is. It’s a thrilling chunk of thudding, powerful hard rock and gives Astbury what he needs the most: a wide canvas with which to strut, swoon and harmonize upon. The chorus of “Before the night is through, grant me one last wish, sweet soul asylum, an everlasting kiss” sounds almost epic with the volume up, as does the way he sings it. Where Rubin’s less-is-more approach freed up the band’s Steppenwolf tendencies, so does Rock’s more-is-more style blast these tracks from left to right and all points in between.
The next song, “New York City,” is the track featuring Iggy Pop and should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it’s repetitive and Pop’s involvement hardly seems worth the effort. Sure, “New York City” isn’t that far away from the structure of The Stooges but, in 1989, Pop was lightyears away from his former band, having already covered “Wild One” as a synth-popified “Real Wild Child” and continued to reinsert himself into the zeitgeist as something other than the shirtless punk. For the Cult, the rest of the record just sort of hangs there, unable to get it up the way the first section could.
No tears for Sonic Temple, though. In the intervening 20 years, “Fire Woman” and “Edie (Ciao Baby)” have become rock radio staples and the album itself has risen above Love and Electric as the most recognizable example of who the Cult were. It’s a level they haven’t been able to attain again, thanks in part to a succession of make-ups, break-ups and the weightiness of the ’90s grunge movement. They tried, as some of their ’90s output put on the airs of the distressed and emotive, yet never sounded authentic. At that moment, when Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder sang about pain, you went for the ride, whereas those sentiments coming from the shamanistic earth-child rang hollow. Worse for the band, hip-hop was co-opting hard rock’s swagger and bravado, misogyny and myth-crafting. The Notorious B.I.G. would create his persona in a parallel world to Astbury’s, yet the two were as far as polar opposites could be, and no, the Cult were not pliable enough to suddenly shift to booty-shaking club bangers.
But we’ll always have Sonic Temple nonetheless.