Album Review: Cage The Elephant's "Social Cues" is unsatisfying

by Willem Gerrish | 5/3/19 2:05am

It’s been almost four years since Cage the Elephant released their Grammy-winning album “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” and in that time, frontman Matt Shultz suffered the shocks of a tumultuous life . He endured a divorce from his wife Juliette Buchs along with the suicides of two close friends , and that despair became the impetus for Cage’s fifth studio album, “Social Cues,” released on April 19. 

Despite its powerful emotional foundation, “Social Cues” comes across as an album of disappointing flatness. Of its 13 songs, only two or three stand out for unique or memorable factors, and the rest blend into a barrage of three-and-a-half-minute radio rock songs packaged together for mass consumption. As for a by-the-numbers analysis, nine of the 13 tracks land in the three-to-four minute range, two land in the two-to-three minute range, and two clock in at just over four minutes. There’s a level of bland consistency to that kind of distribution, and it seeps into the musicality of the songs themselves. Much of the musical structure found in the album is the hackneyed verse-chorus-verse-chorus construction that doesn’t bode well for remarkable ingenuity. 

On a sonic level, “Social Cues” is curiously inconsistent with its production. Some songs, like “Broken Boy” and “Black Madonna,” feel tinny and flat, exacerbated by drums that sound highly compressed to the point of sounding like they came out of a drum machine. And yet, there are instances where the guys of Cage the Elephant and their production team come up with some intriguing aural moments. See the little synth-swell pick up before the chorus in “Skin and Bones” or the reversed sounds in “Tokyo Smoke” that evoke Jimi Hendrix’s classic intro to “Are You Experienced?”    Imbuing songs with these exploratory sounds gives the tracks a dynamic depth that benefits how the album as a whole falls on the ear. I only wish that these experimentations pervaded all of “Social Cues” rather than only being occasionally interspersed. 

I feel compelled to mention the song “Night Running,” if only for the fact that it’s a collaboration between Cage the Elephant and Beck — a musical combination that would’ve seemed impossible before the former’s sonic redefinition with their third album “Melophobia.”   Beck’s voice actually works well with the sound Cage is working with in this album, but holistically, the album has a reggae vibe that doesn’t fit either artist. As a result, “Night Running” sounds like it would’ve been better suited as a bonus track for fan enjoyment rather than a central song on the album. 

One of my biggest qualms with Cage the Elephant of late is the departure of the guitar from the center of their sound. The band’s first two albums, “Cage the Elephant” and “Thank You, Happy Birthday,” are chock full of meaty riffs that get the blood pumping in a fantastic garage-rock way.   Since then, the six-string has been leaking out of Cage’s sound, and on “Social Cues” it feels like a mere background. Many of these songs are driven by the bass and drums, with the guitar as an accent rather than a cornerstone. 

As the band continues to employ both a rhythm and a lead guitarist, it leaves me wondering what these two axe-wielders are even doing in the studio. No guitar solos exist for lead player Nick Bockrath to show off his chops, and even rhythm player Brad Shultz only has some simple riffs to work with . I understand the desire to move away from plain guitar-driven music, but there’s a way to create new sounds while retaining the power and dynamism of an electric guitar — a feature that might improve the flatness of Cage’s recent sound. 

Lyrically, Shultz’s divorce is everywhere on “Social Cues.” It appears in obvious moments, like the tender but cheesy “Love’s the Only Way” and the quiet closing song “Goodbye.”  But it also surfaces at unexpected times, like “The War is Over,” a punk-rock tune that contains the line “You can build your walls; Love will tear it down.” Clearly, his divorce was on his mind as Shultz wrote “Social Cues,” and that detail runs through the entire album. 

As far as memorable songs go, “Social Cues” only has a few. Perhaps the most affecting is “Skin and Bones,” a tune that has a deep, resonant production quality that gives it a sense of purpose that many of the other songs on the album lack. Indeed, “Skin and Bones” was the first song on the album that really stuck with me (coming in at track five), and it is one of the highlights of “Social Cues.” Despite a sparse guitar riff (a detail I lamented about earlier), the bare-bones approach actually benefits this specific song, and innovative aural details allow it to become a focal point of the album. It’s a great conglomeration of Cage’s good production value and Shultz’s distinctive vocals.

A couple years ago, I saw Cage the Elephant live at the Boston Calling music festival, and I can only describe singer Shultz’s stage presence as a combination of Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger. It’s no surprise, then, that “Social Cues” takes inspiration from the great Rolling Stones, and the opening track only serves to prove such a fact. In the starter “Broken Boy,” Shultz sings about being “raised with a strap across my back” (an homage to the second verse of the The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and his callous delivery calls forth the vestiges of British greats like the legendary Jagger. 

But this is only one of a handful of moments — instances of greatness shoehorned between verses of mediocrity. If Cage the Elephant wants to truly impact the course of modern music, their approach must be a combination of classic reverence and modern innovation. So far, that balance remains unstruck, and I can only look toward the next album as a harbinger of a game-changing alternative-rock album. Let’s hope Cage the Elephant can pull that off.