Cage the Elephant has climbed to the upper regions of the popular music tree, becoming Alternative Rock royalty over a span of four albums. Those albums have gained the band both critical and commercial success. Cage the Elephant has gained much of their success by being able to utilize a number of genres within albums and across releases. On April 19th the band attempts to continue this musical alchemy with the release of their fifth effort, “Social Cues”.
Cage the Elephant’s aficionados have been waiting with significant anticipation for what the band would create on this outing. Since their last release in 2015, the band has experienced a number of personal ups and downs. There has been a divorce, the loss of friends to suicide and various other challenges. Many have wondered how these occurrences would be reflected on the release. Throughout “Social Cues” there is an underlying sense of sombre meditation on these events. A sizable slice of isolation and disassociation seems to overlay the release. But instead of “Social Cues” turning into a pity party there are numerous moments of encouragement, resolve and wisdom.
“Social Cues” follows Cage the Elephant’s Grammy-winning release “Tell Me I’m Pretty”. It was recorded in Nashville, TN and Los Angeles, produced by John Hill and mixed by Tom Elmhirst. The band Rota stays the same as on “Tell Me I’m Pretty” with band founder and lead vocalist Matt Shultz, rhythm guitarist Brad Schultz, lead guitarist Nick Bockrath, guitarist/keyboardist Matthew Minster, bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion all returning for this release. “Social Cues” builds on the foundation Cage the Elephant established on their last studio release utilizing an immediately accessible sound. However, in general, the structure of the songs is basic and limited to verse/chorus structures. The lack of variety in the song structures could be problematic and have a negative impact on the release in the long run. Additionally, there is the impression that the band might have focused too much on succeeding on Alt Radio and not as much on the lasting resonance of the tracks.
The album begins with “Broken Boy” an addictive track the breaks forth with an industrial tech sonic and then morphs into an insistent rock track. It is what you would expect if Beck and Devo had a baby. The song effectively builds anticipation for the tracks that follow. The title song “Social Cues” is shiny Alternative Pop, think The Shins. The song addresses doubts about the choices and paths that one takes and where they eventually lead. The synths in the song harken to late 80’s early 90’s synclavier treatments. After two relatively bright opening tracks, the album takes a turn to a darker motif with “Black Madonna”. This slower ballad is sensuous and has that trademark Black Keys oomph as it addresses betrayal and the reality of “what goes up must come down”
The keynote song of the release is “Night Running” where the band collaborates with Beck on a song that was in many ways is a high wire act with a significant difficulty level. Not performed just right and the whole thing could have become a pastiche. I admire Beck and cannot recall an instance where his presence did not make something better, and he keeps his streak going on this Reggae influenced track. It is a total earworm and is probably the one unselfconsciously joyous moment in a recording where sadness often lingers. The collaboration indulges in an ersatz Reggae/Rap party that cannot help but evince a smile from the listener.
The next track “Ready to Let Go” is an engaging offering as it utilizes the imagery of Pompey to unspool a message that there are things we have no control over, and we can decide to worry about them or let go and gain freedom by going with the flow and savouring what we have. The sonics are bouncy and pugnacious creating a ballsy Alt-rock track. I love “House of Glass”, this insistent Pixiesque track scratches an itch as Shultz channels his inner Black Francis. Personally, I would have adored an entire album using this approach. From that ball buster, the album moves on to “Loves the Only Way” which uses evocative strings as it meditates on finding a place of acceptance and love. This song is the loveliest moment on the recording. On this song which one would expect to be an “oh woe is me” moment instead Shultz provides a pretty positive take on how love is worth it no matter the eventual outcome. This outlook is surprising when understood in relation to the emotional beating Shultz has taken with the end of his marriage. It is a refreshing and inspired decision and another worthy track.
The back quarter of the album produces some engaging moments like the back to basics “four on the floor” vibe of “Dance, Dance” and the funk-infused “What I’m Becoming” which is worth a listen. The final track “Goodbye” looks Shultz’s recent losses and misfortunes full in the face as he says goodbye not only to his recent losses but the losses we each encounter throughout life, including goodbyes to loved ones and our own childhoods. This moment produces an evocative emotional release before the album draws to a close.
‘Social Cues” in its totality is an attractive and approachable release that skims the top frequently never delving too deep until the last song. There is not a whole lot of progression on the release that will move the band forward but it is an enjoyable outing loaded with numerous hooks and ear candy. My fear is that it could all get old fast. Maybe being able to simply tread water was an accomplishment for the band at this stage? Cage the Elephant has been ever seeking a midway path between the legendary Alternative sounds that have come before and the need to be a success in Coachella Valley. “Social Cues” when weighed in the balance succeeds in creating an Alternative Singles generator at the cost of a more long-lasting and memorable effort.