Since forming in 2006, Cage the Elephant have managed to dance from one end of the rock spectrum to the other with little hesitation, and great success. Moving effortlessly between the neo-soul grit of their breakout hit ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’, the vaguely punk Thank You Happy Birthday, alt-pop Melophobia, and even the stripped-back cover album
Unpeeled, they’ve managed to acquire a diverse and dedicated fan base without ever confining themselves to a particular sub-genre. That said, despite a handful of standout tracks and their earlier music garnering them near-constant comparisons to The Pixies, it was clear that the band had yet to find their own sound.
After their last album Tell Me I’m Pretty saw them taking home the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2017, the ever watchful eyes of the music world were back on the band; hopeful in the belief that their next project would finally show us who Cage The Elephant were.
Well, they delivered. In a big way.
Produced by the inimitable John Hill (the man behind the magic of Portugal. The Man’s ‘Feel It Still’), Cage The Elephant’s Social Cues is their best and most cohesive album yet. A journey through the personal turmoil of frontman Matt Shultz, the construction of its track-order makes one feel as though they’re experiencing the pains of love, loss, and celebrity alongside him. As a result, Social Cues is brooding, surprising, and possesses every ingredient of a solid alt-rock album.
It kicks off with ‘Broken Boy’: a determined track with a Bowie-like, space-glam intro and a body that can’t help but remind one of Arcade Fire’s grittier work. It dives straight into the depths of Shultz’s frustration with the let downs of his life as a rockstar, where he laments about the fact he was “promised the keys to an empire” and yet feels cheated out of life and happiness, singing repeatedly: “Tell me why I’m forced to live in this skin”. Bowie continues to be a clear influence on the title track ‘Social Cues’, with guitarist Brad Shultz candidly channelling the late singer’s 1980 classic ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with synth-ridden licks that give the song a sense of drive that continues to carry through the album until its close.
Throughout the album, we hear some of the band’s earlier sounds and genre experimentation shine through in a rather nuanced way. ‘Social Cues’ features a wicked, reggae-influenced collaboration with Beck, who the band will be touring with this summer, on Night Running. The track calls to mind early Sticky Fingers, and is a breath of fresh air on the generally dark album. ‘Black Madonna’, ‘Ready To Let Go’, ‘Skin and Bones’, and ‘Dance Dance’ are incredibly easy to listen to alt-pop tracks; catchy choruses, just enough vocal distortion to maintain the edge factor of the rest of Social Cues, and chord progressions straightforward enough for you play along with the band in your room instead of revising for collections.
‘The War Is Over’ and ‘What I’m Becoming’ channel some of the more sophisticated moments on Melophobia and Tell Me I’m Pretty, and ‘House of Glass’ stands out as a real post-punk revival gem. On this track, we get the classic Cage The Elephant overload of guitar distortion, but the fantastic bass and keyboard performances by Daniel Tichenor, Nick Bockrath, and Matthan Minster easily take centre stage. Upon first listen, Tokyo Smoke is another ode to post-punk, but quickly brings to mind The Strokes mid-career (songs of First Impressions Of Earth) in the best way possible. The song is punchy, and Matt Shultz’s Cure-esque vocals give it stamina before it descends into a theatrical, wonderful electric fanfare; the band’s newfound love for spectacle also evident on ‘Love’s The Only Way’.
The album closes with the heart-wrenching ‘Goodbye’; a ballad Shultz wrote for his wife following their recent divorce. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the band recalled how he was only able to muster one take of the vocals, which he recorded lying down on the studio floor. He sings: “I want to scream / I want to laugh / I want to close my eyes / I want to hide somewhere that’s hard to find” and his repeated singing of “it’s all right” throughout the song sounds almost as though he’s attempting to reassure not his wife, but himself. It’s a wonderful track and a poignant ending to a wonderful fifth record.