Cage the Elephant Returns, Suspended Between Rowdiness and Regret
Peace of mind is way out of reach on “Social Cues,” the fifth studio album by the Kentucky rock band Cage the Elephant.
On “Social Cues,” the group combines — and revitalizes — two well-worn scenarios: the pains-of-fame album and the romantic-breakup album (the band’s frontman, Matt Shultz, was recently divorced). Both situations call for thorough self-questioning and the mournful recognition that joy is fleeting, along with flashes of anger, estrangement, guilt and melancholy. No wonder most of the new songs revolve around minor chords.
Onstage, Cage the Elephant has proudly maintained rock’s men-will-be-boys tradition; Shultz is a live wire exulting in the moment. And ever since its 2008 debut album, the group has noisily defied the cultural decline of rock in the 21st century. The band writes and performs as if there is still a canonical direct line from 1950s rock ’n’ roll through the British Invasion and the psychedelic 1960s, the glam and punk 1970s, the new wave and arena rock 1980s and the grungy 1990s, all the way to the present — as if hip-hop hadn’t all but completely sidelined the guitar band.
Cage the Elephant’s songs unmistakably connect to rock’s past. Its music is studded with sonic and structural allusions, though it doesn’t linger on any particular style or era. And the songs are never simply period pieces or party tunes. The band doesn’t merely understand, and revel in, what a historical anomaly it is. It also has feelings, and shows them.
But even as the lyrics detail troubled thoughts, the music staves off self-pity with distorted tones, obstinate drumbeats and unhistrionic vocals. The album’s producer, John Hill, is in no way a retro rock purist; his credits include tracks by Santigold, Florence and the Machine, Eminem and Shakira, and with him Cage the Elephant devises past-and-present fusions. “Ready to Let Go,” the first single from “Social Cues,” pinpoints the moment of a relationship’s collapse. A garage-rock fuzz-toned guitar and a drumbeat that sounds looped (in hip-hop style) carry lyrics that realize things are beyond repair: “On both sides the vow was broken,” Shultz sings. “Oh my my I’m the one/Trying to hide this damage done.”
Throughout the album, the fragility of love collides with the personality warp of celebrity. The title track of “Social Cues” portrays a rock star’s freakout, with a hook built from wavery tones that hint at David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” In his ragged voice, Shultz warns, “Don’t know if I can play this part much longer” and contemplates suicide — “The best die young/immortalize” — only to be told, “At least you’re on the radio.”
“Broken Boy” opens the album with a galloping, droning burst of latter-day kraut-rock that demands, “Tell me why I’m forced to live in this skin.” In “House of Glass,” the band revs up to barbed, dissonant punk as the deadpan singer notes that he’s just “Another mirrored image/Corrupted and distorted.” And in “The War Is Over,” a sputtering march beat and ghostly organ tones enfold a tale of crumbling defenses: “You can build your walls/Love will tear it down,” Shultz moans.
There’s little comfort on “Social Cues.” Instead, songs muster a sullen perseverance laced with cynicism — “We’ll all fake it ’til we forget,” Shultz sneers in “Dance Dance” — amid a sense that all the band’s craftsmanship and rock erudition can’t relieve despair. The album’s quietly devastating finale is “Goodbye,” an elegy for a failed romance: “Lord knows how hard we tried.” Keyboard chords toll and a string arrangement wafts in, but when Shultz concludes, “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right,” he’s not deceiving anyone.