To say that Cage The Elephant’s star has fallen over the last few years would be to grossly undersell how close this band actually were to becoming unavoidable. Their self-titled debut proved to be the smart, irreverent, zeitgeist-y indie-rock that 2008 wanted, but it’s 2011 follow-up Thank You, Happy Birthday really set the wheels in motion for a band who could rise to the very top of their scene, not only in musical quality but in the general pulling power they had; people seem to forget or be unaware that Dave Grohl was their touring drummer at a point. But what felt like a bump in the road down to a median level on 2013’s Melophobia gave way for total implosion 0n 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, an album that no one actually liked with a mid-December release date to imply that this was not Cage The Elephant firing on all cylinders. What’s worse is that it’s the last taste of this band that’s been had since, with a downward trend that makes way for enormous apprehension of the eve of Social Cues’ release. Sure, the much-feted collaboration with Beck has instilled a bit more faith in some, but Cage The Elephant’s low ebb still has the potential to sputter out entirely, and considering their last album saw them closer to that edge than ever before, there’s a hefty amount of doubt that they can pull back here.
As for the finished product though, a lot of that doubt ends up blowing over, surprisingly enough. At its core, Social Cues regains the direction that Cage The Elephant have lacked recently, drawing on the anguish and inner turmoil that’s afflicted frontman Matt Shultz recently in a way that almost throws back to the ramshackle volatility of their earlier material, but grounds it in something a lot more real. Granted, it was that idea that became what was most appealing about Cage The Elephant, but there’s an equal amount to like and appreciate when it’s condensed to this point as well, and while it doesn’t quite kick as hard, this feels like the rebound that this band needed to pull off, and they do it noticeably well at that.
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of that is sidestepped in the overall presentation which, rather than harkening back to the snide college-rock of their debut or the almost cartoonish indie-grunge of Thank You, Happy Birthday – both of which would’ve been perfectly acceptable to revisit – the almost immediate shifts to trendy, sterile alternative tones puts an impermeable cap on what could’ve been a lot more. It’s easy to tell that producer John Hill is far more used to working with pop acts, as the emphasis on cramming everything into place when the band clearly want to verge towards something a bit more raucous is blatant, and it leads to instances like on Broken Boy and Dance Dance where the guitars are reduced to buzzes with all the body of a scraping knife, or where they simply just cave and ape Twenty One Pilots on the chunky reggae thrum of Night Running. It’s the lack of consistency that’s the main issue, and how quality seems to arise in fits and spurts rather than remain designated to certain tones and styles; the slower, more lush focus on strings on Love’s The Only Way and Goodbye would assume that’s where this album’s greatest strength lies, but House Of Glass’ nervy post-punk proves to be the best example of this band’s talents on the album. It doesn’t help that Shultz has something of an acquired taste in a very curt, pointed delivery anyway, but even that can prove to be unworkably slapdash, like on the extreme tightening and condensing on Black Madonna, or to the point where his contributions are virtually indistinguishable from Beck’s on Night Running. Sure, moments of garage-rock intrigue definitely show up, and on the whole Social Cues does have a more distinct overall palate than Cage The Elephant’s later work, but it’s trying to sound outwardly contemporary doesn’t make for as sturdy of a listen, at least on the surface.
It means a lot of the onus is put on the content, and thankfully, this is where Social Cues shines the brightest, or at least enough to cover some of the shakier spots in its presentation. It’s hardly a novel concept – an album driven by the gnawing neuroses and turbulence within the artist’s head – but there’s a tangibility to the way that Shultz delivers his renditions of it, moving away from what could’ve been viewed as churlishness on their early work to something a lot more human. If there’s one thing this album can’t be faulted for, it’s the extent to which modernity dictates its direction, and with the epicentre being a trip to Pompeii that formulated the notion of divorce being the only way he and his wife could move forward on Ready To Let Go, there’s a weight behind this portrayal that a lot of indie-rock lacks, but also feels suitably reactionary and off-the-cuff. Isolation is prioritised as a coping mechanism on The War Is Over, as are blank-faced nights of hedonism on Dance Dance, the sort of direct but potentially damaging ‘solutions’ that feel like the natural responses to the paranoia of Broken Boy or the encroaching realisation of the fleeting nature of fame on the title track. And even if that sounds unnecessarily bleak and dark, that’s the point, and it’s something that Social Cues embraces in just how messy and confused it is. It might be a bit out of Cage The Elephant’s wheelhouse sonically, but it says a lot that, just like how everything is musically shunted into place, it actually works for the whole album when viewed as a bigger piece.
Away from that context though, it’s easy to see how Social Cues can feel a bit too disjointed or awkward, but if nothing else, it gives a sense of presence that’s long been been absent with this band. Cage The Elephant might still be a distance away from their former glories, and if there was anything to isolate that’s keeping them there it’d be a lack of beneficial production choices, but at the very least they’re grasping more interesting ideas and moulding them into a much stronger foundation to build on. Social Cues already does that extremely well, and it actually makes reaching a point of true greatness once again seem more in focus than it has been in years. It mightn’t be quite excellent, but that net positive is enough of a reason to call Social Cues a win.
For fans of: The Black Keys, Foster The People, Beck
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Social Cues’ by Cage The Elephant is out now on RCA Records.