Album review: “Social Cues” by Cage the Elephant
Review by Michael Cottone
Kentucky rock group Cage the Elephant have established themselves among the most consistent groups in music over the last decade. They have become one of the prime examples of not being tied down, or ‘caged’ if you will, to one genre and taking pride in the individuality of their sound. Despite the pride, they’ve remained humble, ambitious, genuine and have not forgotten their roots – no matter how big they get. Whether its playing at Western Kentucky University’s campus in their hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, or assisting Dan Luke and the Raid– a band led by Matt Shultz’s little brother Dan Shultz – on gigs in surrounding areas, they’ve ultimately culminated a reputation as hometown heroes and are deeply loved by the community of Bowling Green.
In 2015, the band released their fourth studio album Tell Me I’m Pretty, produced by Dan Auerbach. It brought the band to new heights and was their biggest success yet. It took their sound in a direction nostalgic of 1960s psychedelia and fuzz. Their fifth and newest studio album Social Cues – released on April 19 – shows listeners the band’s desire to try a new direction with their sound yet again following that success in 2015. This is done primarily by the use of new instruments as well as taking us inside the head of lead singer Matt Shultz, letting him inform listeners of his recent struggles by writing the lyrics for this record.
Cage the Elephant on stage. Photo by Citizen Kane Wayne
The record lyrically is an outpouring of raw emotion and trauma that Shultz has experienced within the last year or so. The timing of the release is paralleled with the losses of Dan Luke and the Raid’s Dylan Graves and Morning Teleportation’s Tiger Merritt, who died within days of each other. It’s an album that will hopefully allow the community to properly grieve and let itself move on peacefully as the town’s music scene tries to recoup. However, the melancholy moments in Social Cues are largely centered around the fact that Shultz recently went through a divorce with his wife of seven years before the recording of the album. On lead single ‘Ready To Let Go,’ Shultz tells the story of how he and his wife took a trip to Pompeii and realized they needed to split.
On the album’s closer ‘Goodbye,’ a piano-driven heartbreak, Shultz revisits the divorce and closes that chapter of his life with lyrics that can make any listener break down. “All my life, I read between the lines/Held on too tight, you know I tried/But in the end, it left me paralyzed/It’s alright, goodbye, goodbye,” he sings.
It’s evident that recording Social Cues was therapeutic and essential to healing for Shultz to an extent. The ability of the band to convey raw emotion not only through focusing on thought-provoking lyrics, but different approaches sonically is a testament to their success over the last decade. Some songs are loaded with craze and hit you like a freight train such as ‘House of Glass’ and ‘Broken Boy.’ Other songs like ‘What I’m Becoming,’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Love Is the Only Way’ balance the album’s pace by slowing it down and letting Shultz take the lead with gloomy toned vocals. Songs like ‘Social Cues’ and ‘Ready To Let Go’ focus on making a catchy chorus with a reminiscent feel of the grooves Melophobia had while still sounding fresh. The band even got to do a song with one of their contemporary influences in Beck, producing a scandalous song about a night on the town led by Beck’s two parading verses.
While Cage the Elephant have visibly worn their influences on their sleeves throughout their career, they have never been afraid to be vulnerable in their music and have remained true to themselves. Social Cues is an album that carries a tone of being broken, but hopeful and able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It grips the minds of listeners and forces them to not only hear out Shultz’s struggles and traumas but to take a moment and realize that emotion comes in a wide – and sometimes jumbled – range of directions and feelings.