Album Review: Cage the Elephant – 'Social Cues'

The frenetic Kentucky six-piece offer a highly-ambitious, yet confusing fifth record caught in the throes of heartbreak and loss.

Over the course of their thirteen-year history, Cage the Elephant have dipped their toes in their fair share of rock’s offshoot genres. Despite being labelled a classic rock band with a funk and blues stamp to them, the six-piece from Bowling Green, Kentucky have navigated the likes of blues rock, grunge, alternative and arena rock throughout their glittering career. Their self-titled debut record was met with critical acclaim in 2008 whilst 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty picked up Best Rock Album at the 59th Grammy Awards. In the space of the last four years however, lead singer Matt Schultz has had to deal with divorce and the death of dear friends, which act as two defining features of the band’s latest record, Social Cues.

The glitz and glam of opening single ‘Broken Boy highlights a band brimming with confidence and ambition. A distorted synth introduction makes way for hip-thrusting guitars and Schultz’s alarming vocals which strut across the track like Jagger in his prime. Raucous, punchy and simmering with a certain devilish bravado, the track is everything you want from an album opener. The bouncing ‘Ready to Let Go,’ is an instant fan pleaser, recalling the conquests of the band’s previous record. An ode to the closure that comes with accepting the fate of a relationship, the single is a pleasing listen, but fails to hook the mind of the more adventurous.

The band’s fifth record weaves the narrative of a mind darkened with both the breakdown of a marriage and the loss of friends. The twisting torment of Schultz’s personal life is projected vividly across Social Cues, but his ambitions act only to hinder progress at times, as contrasting genres and emotions intertwine with varying degrees of success. A predatory reggae-rock crossover that is as confusing as it sounds, ‘Night Runningfinds the band collaborating with music impresario Beck, who as expected stamps his authority across the single, with swaggering half-rapped lyrics orchestrating the deft, syncopated instrumentation that lies beneath.

If ‘Night Runninghighlights musical experimentation gone too far, the smooth ‘Black Madonna captures the sedated, night time drawl of American city life to perfection. A slowly unraveling ear-worm, its lulled nature catches you off guard as Schultz’s sultry narrative weaves its way through the single like a leather-jacketed Alex Turner. A charming well-rounded single, ‘Black Madonnamanages to tackle love and loss without sacrificing the fundamental core of the six-piece. Whilst the remainder of the album offers sparks of innovation, very few ignite and blossom into the creative endeavours that the band have effortlessly produced in the past.

The album’s title track ‘Social Cues lambasts on the pressures of modern society and stardom but remains firmly sedated from start to finish. The brash rock and roll of ‘Dance Dance has the potential to reel listeners in with its liquid guitar line but the urgency seen in the track’s beginning isn’t maintained for long enough to really captivate its listener. The synth-rock scuzz of ‘The War Is Over melts into the quagmire of predictability, as does ‘Tokyo Smokebefore its expansive breakdown breathes some life into a dying single.

Only on three occasions does a broken Matt Schultz manage to convey the turmoil he’s faced in the last four years to optimum success. The strains of heartbreak embody the soothing orchestral ballad of ‘Love’s the Only Way,’ a track which projects an emotional maturity and openness unseen on previous records. A lush guitar and orchestral combination spans far across ‘What I’m Becoming,’ a single riddled with melancholic sadness at how times and personalities have changed. Fittingly, its narrative depth indicates how both Schultz and the band have developed emotionally as well as musically.

Social Cues is by far the band’s most experimental offering to date and in a sense, the sparse finale of ‘Goodbye is a fitting ending to the record. Stripped back in its entirety, the absence of Brad Schultz and Nick Backrath’s guitars could have you mistaking the track for someone completely different.

Gone are the happy-go-lucky days of ‘James Brown and ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked.’ The present day has presented new challenges for the band, and in Matt Schultz’s case the breakdown of his long-term relationship seems to have steered the course of the band’s immediate future. In the throes of emotional disarray however, Schultz appears to have picked up the tools of a master narrator, and his farewell love-letter ‘Goodbye acts as a poignant note to leave both the album and his relationship on.

At times, you feel almost as if the new record is a throwaway attempt by Schultz to rid his head of the struggles of divorce and the turmoil of losing close friends. By throwing his soul into the heart of Social Cues, the singer provides fans the intimate opportunity to learn the workings of a renowned frontman, yet for the casual listener this isn’t enough. The charming boyhood swagger of 2008’s self-titled debut album has been replaced with a sombre and at times lacklustre effort to wash away personal demons, sacrificing their highly-efficient brand of electrically-charged rock for a dose of self-medicated melancholy. Once Schultz manages to pick himself up, there are glimpses of a band with a sense of purpose, but their ambitions in the end lead to a maelstrom of confusion and half-hearted attempts to diversify their sound.

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