Album Review: Cage the Elephant – “Social Cues”

There ain’t no rest for the wicked—and there ain’t no rest for Cage the Elephant, either. Two years ago, the Kentucky rockers released Unpeeled, a live album featuring both recordings of old favorites and new material. Now, they’re back with Social Cues, their fifth studio LP. The brightly colored album art reflects the record’s vibrant sound. Here, the guys venture beyond traditional garage and psych rock to experiment with different alternative styles—often with exciting results.

The title track is an immediate standout. Listeners will be surprised by the groovy, upbeat intro—the song sounds more like an early single by MGMT or Peter Bjorn & John than the bluesy hits that the band is known for. Yet its buoyant melody belies the angst in its lyrics, which describe the mental and emotional tolls of fame. Frontman Matt Shultz’s voice soars to the heights as he sings, “Starry-eyed child left behind/Choose your favorite vice”; you can almost see his bones trembling under a spotlight. When he murmurs, “The best die young, immortalized,” the flatness in his voice is chilling—especially given the number of young musicians who have tragically become casualties of the music industry in recent years. Yet the song’s best moment is its frantic chorus. “People always say, ‘Man, at least you’re on the radio,” Shultz vents. Then he repeats the phrase to himself, alternating between low notes and falsetto, in a war with his own psyche. It’s almost as if he’s trying to persuade himself—but he’s getting nowhere. 

Halloween comes early with “Night Running,” the band’s collaboration with Beck. With horn accents and a booming bassline, it draws upon reggae and dub, but its lyrics call to mind a gang of cowboys who moonlight as vampire hunters. Playing the role of confident vigilantes with ease, Beck and Shultz drop one thrilling metaphor after another: Beck brags, “I got my X-ray eyes/And I’m feeling so fine”; then Shultz asks, “Is there a creature in the attic?” All the while, electric guitars add a sense of suspense. The call-and-response chorus is addictive, perfect for the rollicking rhythms of the road; fans will be in for a treat when Beck sings it with the band during their summer tour together.

“House of Glass” is another highlight. In the style of Foster the People’s “Loyal Like Sid and Nancy,” Shultz delivers the verses as a spoken-word doom prophecy of sorts. As he did in “Social Cues,” he plays with contrast in the chorus, switching between apathetic intonation and a broken wail. Every time he sings, “My isolation,” guitars roar like harbingers of destruction. It sounds like the kind of song a band would make after being locked in a room for 24 hours, with instruments; it’s a wonderful frenzy.

The rest of the songs are more traditional Cage the Elephant fare, featuring the same guitar-driven grit the band’s fans have come to love. “Broken Boy” recalls the controlled chaos of Thank You, Happy Birthday. “Love’s the Only Way,” a ballad, has all the sincerity of Melophobia’s “Telescope.” “The War Is Over”’s storytelling verses evoke the fable-like “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked” from the band’s self-titled debut. “Ready to Let Go” has the brooding, ’60s-inspired vibe of Tell Me I’m Pretty’s “Cold Cold Cold”; yet it brings something new to the table—a somber reflection on Shultz’s recent divorce. It’s the most personal he gets on the record, and his rawness makes for moving music.

Social Cues shows why Cage the Elephant has stayed in the game for so long. With instrumentation that breaks past banality and a knack for evocative lyrics, they’re sure to be on rotation on your favorite alt-rock radio station for a while.


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