It’s a lofty and unusual compliment to say that a songwriter reminds you more of John Milton and William Blake than any of his music-making contemporaries. But Sean Ragon, the creative wellspring behind Cult of Youth, functions with such a sense of literacy that it’s not absurd to call him something of a poet. His latest album, Love Will Prevail, emerges as the neo-folk followup to Cult of Youth’s post-industrial self-titled LP. In it, Ragon sheds much of the dark static that swarmed over Cult of Youth to blossom forth with a rich, fiery sound that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is musically provocative.
Like most other avant-folk and post-industrial albums, Love Will Prevail constructs its drama within its own time, its own space, its own universe. It’s not quite the wild old-world underbelly of Nick Cave, nor is it the universe on the precipice of non-existence as in the work of Current 93 and often Swans. We’re not peering down at the end of all being through Ragon’s bloodshot eyes, though titles like “Man and Man’s Ruin” and “New Old Ways” certainly suggest a not-so-latent skepticism regarding the future of humanity. Still, despite a firm aesthetic commitment to a kind of folkloric darkness, Love Will Prevail ultimately proves to be as hopeful as its title suggests.
Ragon builds from the work of the apocalyptic post-industrialists of the late 20th century, using both their tonalities and philosophies as a scaffolding for his own explorations. What he finds is not especially post-industrial itself–one could hardly expect to cover the explosive choruses in “Golden Age” or the pastoral reflections of “Prince of Peace” with that tag. But Ragan is clearly someone who has studied the existential treatises of Death in June and the nightmare vortexes of Throbbing Gristle. What he does with what he’s learned, though, pushes Cult of Youth firmly beyond the stark experimental space of its ancestors.
Rather than dwell on stock questions of existence or middle around in the anxiety ambient in a troubled society, Ragon focuses on pulling out the highlights of human narratives–on amplifying the contrast between who we are at are darkest and who we are at our best. Yes, there’s frustration in the record’s philosophical queries; “New Old Ways” especially revolves around the paranoia that human nature, the good and the awful of it, can never change, only take new forms. But there’s also a palpable yearning for utopia within these ten vibrant tracks–an unwavering hope that if we can conceive of paradise, we have a good chance at realizing it.
To put it plainly, Love Will Prevail is weird and dark and smart, picking up on threads from the past that most other songwriters had forgotten about and weaving them into something that sounds like little else today. Hearing a young Brooklynite swing his English-tinged voice around between the registers of Ian Anderson and Nick Cave might perplex, but at least he’s tangibly (and convincingly) emoting. Ragon’s complex, commanding instrumentation carries him far away from the threat of appearing ridiculous even when he’s singing (like Blake) about Jerusalem or royalty or other cobwebbed fables using a vocabulary that includes the word “dossier.” And despite Cult of Youth’s historical slant, a blistering, overdriven electric guitar never feels much out of place among all the horns, strings, and jungle drums. Ragon has the skill to twist all his found objects into something real and new: a strange breed of robust neo-folk with a fiery art-punk streak.