Genre labels have never done Cage the Elephant much good.
The constraints of a definition would be more like, well, a cage. With each record, the band takes artful concepts and tie-dyes them with its own playful brand of cheeky giddiness. After all that definition defying, it could be hard to maintain a sense of individual identity. But on Cage the Elephant’s new record, “Social Cues,” released April 19, a midlife crisis hasn’t been so immediately captivating since Beck’s “Sea Change.”
Cage the Elephant actually shares a lot in common with the indie rock/pop pioneer. Aside from embarking on a joint tour this summer alongside indie champion Spoon, Cage the Elephant and Beck both gave their careers rocket-sled starts with the slide-riffing, party-rock monsters “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “Loser,” respectively.
Cage the Elephant is now 10 years removed from “Ain’t No Rest” and the breadth of sonic diversity in its five studio albums has been unparalleled by anyone, except, well, Beck. It’s only fitting that Beck has a collaborative track on “Social Cues.”
Staying true to Cage the Elephant’s rock ‘n’ roll roots, “Social Cues” makes it obvious that the band isn’t out of ideas yet. Rollicking basslines and blasting drum sequences lead listeners down a long sonic highway filled with exotic scenery, evoking visions off vibrant plant life to terrifying cliffs. The album hearkens to past efforts by the band through its tolerance of every musical idea and theme, but remains a sect unto itself.
The experimentation on “Social Cues” takes a different direction than that of the band’s previous efforts. While it may come off as simply more pop savvy, it utilizes uncommon devices like phasers and ‘80s synth sounds to get its warped ideas across.
The most intense track is the roaring opener “Broken Boy,” whose energy is like a bungee jump from a rising drawbridge. A piercing urgency is brought forth from an ominous synth buzz that explodes into a cocked-and-loaded bullet train of a drum beat.
“I was born on the wrong side of the train tracks/Lay me on my side or hold me up to the light/I was burned by the cold kiss of a vampire/I was promised the keys to an empire/Any good friend of yours is a good friend of mine,” lead singer Matt Schultz spits. Through this recollection of past experiences, Schultz voices frustration as well as triumph. This absolutely comes off in his vocal inflection, which resonates as honest and genuine.
Similarly retrospective and straight-from-the-heart lyrics are found elsewhere on the album, such as on “Love’s The Only Way.” This stripped back and glowing piece of folk-pop emphasizes Schultz’s boyish voice, laced with a healthy dose of reverb.
“Looking out my window at the city below from my fancy hotel suite/Tell me where the wind blows, tell me how a heart knows where a soul can find some sleep,” he croons. Peaceful tracks like this, which speak of longing for quiet solitude and the struggles of being on the road, would have fit in easily with the more subdued tracks on Cage the Elephant’s 2015 album “Tell Me I’m Pretty.”
The collaborative track with Beck, “Night Running,” is the polar opposite, with its upbeat, sunny bass hits and Beck’s sly and slick vocals that often ride one note for an entire line of lyrics, hopping off only to make inflection. This track is almost identical to some of the tracks from Beck’s 2017 pop epic, “Colors,” and while the track isn’t the most engaging selection from the album, it’s a solid late night mood setter, nonetheless.
The second-to-last track, “Tokyo Smoke,” starts the close of the album with a spookily dissonant chord progression that echoes into the cold, dark night. It’s the perfect transition to the closing track “Goodbye,” which builds instrumentally from a wistful-yet-hearty piano and slowly adds bold strings and tender percussion. The band leaves the album off with a hopeful embrace of wholesome acoustic and swirling ambient sound.
Cage the Elephant has proven itself once again as a creative force to be reckoned with. The power and conviction with which the band carries out its well-cooked musical ideas is endearing and inspiring. Although the final word spoken in the album is “goodbye,” it would be a shame if this were the final installment in the band’s discography. “Social Cues” makes it seem like the band has a lot more creating left to do.