Online music editor Stephen Ong reviews Cage the Elephant’s latest album
Cage The Elephant have evolved immensely across their discography, retaining a hint of blues throughout their forays into punk, garage rock, and noise rock. Social Cues marks the longest wait between albums yet (not counting the acoustic Unpeeled), coming after the setback that was their last album; the band had found an identifiable sound on the brilliant, psychedelic Melophobia, but proceeded to drop it in favour of the lifeless Black Keys rip-off Tell Me I’m Pretty. Despite their constant evolution, Cage The Elephant have managed to make hits throughout every single one of their albums, and Social Cues doubles down on this. Lead single ‘Ready To Let Go’ is an earworm that competes with the best of Tell Me I’m Pretty, and the rest of the album combines their early energy with their newfound maturity.
Social Cues is every bit as diverse as Melophobia, going from pseudo-reggae on ‘Night Running’ to noise rock on ‘House of Glass’ to baroque pop on ‘What I’m Becoming’. In this way, Social Cues is both Cage The Elephant’s least and most progressive album, where half the songs could belong to an older record, and the other half are unfamiliar sounds to the band.
the rest of the album combines their early energy with their newfound maturity
Unlike other Cage The Elephant albums, Social Cues has a clear focus on alienation and heartbreak in its lyrics, stemming from lead singer Matt Shultz’s divorce from his wife. Despite the punkish swagger of opening track ‘Broken Boy’, Shultz’s declaration “I’m an alien” nullifies any optimism one might find in the song. The end of the album contrasts this; the sombre ‘Goodbye’ is hopeful and defiant, its refrain repeating “I won’t cry”. The band performs best when heartfelt (‘Cigarette Daydreams’, ‘Shake Me Down’, ‘Right Before My Eyes’, ‘Telescope’), and ‘Love’s The Only Way’ is the best example of it on Social Cues. “One day you’ll find life’s not a game / it’s not the wave that moves the sea, but the sea that moves the waves”, sings Shultz, backed by an acoustic guitar and strings. Of course, this side of the band was fully explored on Unpeeled.
‘Close my eyes and let the love light guide me home,’ goes the chorus to ‘Skin and Bones’, Cage the Elephant’s attempt at stadium rock. The chorus is a huge, phones-in-the-air moment, but it’s still uniquely Cage with its offbeat chords, psychedelic guitar tone, and urgency. Social Cues is a return to form in that aspect, maintaining an urgency that Tell Me I’m Pretty lacked. The urgency keeps the songs interesting; penultimate track ‘Tokyo Smoke’ is tense, and always building to a climax. The album only allows for rest on its ballads, and the unfortunate half-hearted attempt at dance-punk on ‘Dance Dance’, which definitely falls apart before half time, and is as engaging as watching white paint dry on a blank canvas.
it’s an exploration of maintaining a balance between what works for them and continuing to develop their music
Social Cues seems to be the band’s exploration of maintaining a balance between what works for them and continuing to develop their music. Some of the changes pay off, with the introduction of synths and strings a welcome addition, and is an exciting insight into how their music may develop. However, ‘Night Running’ is a low point that has no place on the album, essentially being an unfinished reggae track the band gave to Beck, who uses it as an opportunity to rap about vampires (for reference, ‘Loser’ came out 25 years ago).
Much of the album is steeped in a mix of gritty and anthemic, comparable to The Voidz’s Virtue if it was made for the radio, but Social Cues functions as a cohesive album, one that introspectively tackles fame and heartbreak. While the album isn’t a bona fide masterpiece, it is equally accessible and personal, a step in the right direction, and sure to satisfy listeners.