Release Date: April 19th, 2019
Alt-rock darlings Cage the Elephant have been around for a decade and are global superstars. Though they’ve found mainstream success, they’ve experienced some low points, especially frontman Matt Shultz who may have experienced one of the hardest times in his life. This is addressed on their fifth album Social Cues. Written in the aftermath of Shultz divorce, it also deals with the paranoia and anxiety that comes with fame making for their darkest and most personal album yet.
Things kick off with the stellar “Broken Boy,” which returns to the band’s rock/blues sound. With racing music, wailing guitars, and Shultz’s boundless energy it’s classic Cage the Elephant all the way. This is the closest we get to their unapologetic raucous sound found on their first two albums. It’s a welcome return for those who missed their chaotic drive. A similar vibe can be found on “Social Cues,” another stand out track. Here we see Shultz getting personal as he expresses his anxiety about fame. He sings about wanting to run and hide instead of being in the spotlight. It has a great bouncy flow, upbeat music, and a simple, yet catchy hook of “people always say/man at least you’re on the radio.” After hearing the song once, it’ll be stuck in your head all day.
The frantic “House of Glass” further explores Shultz’s anxiety as he talks about the perils and pressures of fame. The guitar riff ripped from a vintage garage rock song, adds a creepy and unsettling atmosphere. Shultz is paranoid and on edge, yet devoid of emotion as he sings “It’s an illusion, this admiration/ Of mutilation, my isolation.” Because of its ominous feel, intense nature, and cold delivery, it’s an album highlight showing the band still know how to subvert expectations.
Shultz continues to get personal as he works through the pain, frustration, and sadness of his divorce. This casts a looming darkness over the entire record. Whereas the band’s past efforts were upbeat, fun, funky affairs, this one is mellow, reflective, and at times bleak. His anguish and heartache can be felt on “What Am I Becoming?” where he admits to not living up to his partner’s expectations and questioning who he is in the process, while the ominous “Ready To Let Go” talks about coming to terms with a relationship’s demise. Even the smooth and groovy “Black Madonna” hints at infidelity and lies as Shultz sings “call me when you’re ready to be real.” He may have gotten personal in the past, but here he dives deep to share one of his difficult moments giving the record some weight.
This lamenting of love loss hits hardest on the closing track “Goodbye.” The bittersweet ballad shows the singer is ready to move on to the next phase of his life, even though it hurts. He remains calm and wishes the best for his partner. When he sings “goodbye/goodbye/lord knows how hard we tried” it’s downright gut-wrenching. This paired with the soft, swelling strings will make you start bawling and if you’ve been in this situation, you know the pain behind Shultz’s words. It’s a beautiful, yet mournful moment for the album.
For the majority of the record, the band sticks with their fusion of psychedelic and blues rock, but they switch gears on “Night Running.” It has a reggae-inspired groove and slow, heavy electro beats that give it a sleek vibe. At times it sounds more like a Beck song, but it’s a fun, chill moment that’ll grow on you over time. The band gets back to basics on the dizzying “Tokyo Smoke.” Its hypnotic guitar riff pulls you in while the ominous mood gives a song a sense of danger. Things slow down on “Skin and Bones” as Shultz once again addresses his desire to escape fame in a moment that’s reflective and somber.
While Cage the Elephant excels at the psychedelic sound, there are moments where it gets stale. Songs like “The War is Over” and “Dance Dance” aren’t bad, but feel similar to their last record and are pretty forgettable. And while the melancholy “Love’s the Only Way” is well-meaning, it drags down the energy of the album and doesn’t compare to their other ballads, like “Too Late to Say Goodbye.” The one thing missing from the album is Shultz’s powerful vocals. Past albums have shown him to have a wide range whether he’s cooing or screaming at the top of his lungs. His vocals are exciting, unpredictable, and gives the track some flair, but we don’t get that here. Instead, he sings in a lower register. It fits the mood of the songs, but his wild, unchained vocals are sorely missed.
Social Cues finds Cage the Elephant charting familiar and unknown territory at the same time. Whereas past records find them completely shifting their sound, here they mainly build on the psychedelic groove found on Tell Me I’m Pretty. Yet, they also get more personal digging into difficult moments and ugly feelings that allows them to explore their dark side making for a compelling record. It has its weak moments, but its strong points keep you engaged as you traverse through this journey of loss, anxiety, frustration, and acceptance.