The Lowdown: Alt-rock megastars Cage the Elephant have done a lot since the release of their self-titled debut in 2008. They’ve traversed a wide gamut of genres, ranging from the unvarnished blues rock of their debut to the Pixies-esque alternative of Thank You, Happy Birthday and the haunting eccentricity of Melophobia. They’ve even achieved festival-headliner status in the time since 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, but what often follows headliner status is a bland array of Coachella-ready tunes.
With the arrival of the band’s latest record, Social Cues, Cage the Elephant build off the foundation they set with their previous album, both to its favor and detriment. Where Tell Me I’m Pretty lacked in vivacity, Social Cues attempts to retain its musicality while exploring new themes. But with the headliner-level fame they’ve attained, this album sounds as if most songs were written with alternative radio in mind.
The Good: Although Social Cues can feel monotonous, its opening is anything but. “Broken Boy” mirrors the abrasive mania heard on previous Cage the Elephant tracks such as “Sabertooth Tiger” and “Teeth”. It staggers through a lo-fi production style in the intro, eventually bursting into a surf-punk groove that showcases vocalist Matt Shultz’s uneasy drawl. The single “House of Glass” is another standout, with a guitar progression as foreboding as Shultz’s lyrics about isolation and mutilation.
Thematically, Social Cues centers on Shultz’s recent divorce from his wife, and much of the record carries a somber weight. Though exploring dark motifs is nothing novel for a band like Cage the Elephant, divorce is a new topic for Shultz. It’s from this perspective that this album feels most distinct from its predecessor.
The Bad: Shultz’s lamentations on his divorce may sustain a bleakness throughout the record, but his expressions are seldom anything that profound. On “Skin and Bones”, he sings: “Close my eyes and fight to carry on.” During the band’s collaboration with Beck, “Night Running”, he asks, “Are we for real or just pretending?” For an album that focuses almost completely on divorce, fresh perspectives are scarce.
Musically, most of Social Cues’ songs are presented as generic verse-chorus structures with the end goal of charting on alternative radio. “Night Running”, Cage the Elephant’s attempt at a trap-inspired song, best exemplifies this. It’s a song well-suited for open festival fields and parks in big cities, but beyond its limits it feels like simple pandering. Lead single “Ready to Let Go” works in a similar fashion. Predictable and innocuous, it doesn’t do anything to advance Cage the Elephant’s stylistic evolution.
The title track is a mid-tempo stroll, likely the band’s next single, featuring a synth lead designed to fit in with alt-pop chart-huggers such as AJR and lovelytheband. The latter half of the album is also mostly forgettable, with the exception of its heartfelt closing ballad, “Goodbye”. Now that Cage the Elephant have the status that they do, it would be interesting to see them take more risks, but Social Cues may be their safest record yet.
The Verdict: Cage the Elephant are one of the biggest bands in alternative rock right now. While their contemporaries Arctic Monkeys underwent a total reinvention with their loungey 2018 release and with Vampire Weekend offering an ambitious double LP this May, Cage the Elephant have offered a batch of all too generic radio-friendly singles. It would have been fascinating to see the band take a drastic turn and lean into experimentation, but instead they’ve returned with a relatively underwhelming fifth album.
Essential Tracks: “Broken Boy”, “House of Glass”, and “Goodbye”
Buy: Check out Cage the Elephant vinyl here.