Social Cues is the long-awaited fifth offering from Kentucky alt-rock outfit Cage The Elephant. Their honed retro fuzz is shaken in its head and given a darker, more sinister edge, coming from the depths of emotional turmoil for lead singer Matt Shultz. Produced by John Hill (Florence + The Machine), it’s set for release on April 19, via Columbia.
The avant-garde, dreamy nature of their last two studio albums is more prevalent than ever, having left their brash recklessness and tedious accusations of imitation of the likes of Nirvana and Pixies firmly in the past.
Critics have been hesitant since the band’s inception, denying initially that Cage The Elephant have anything more to offer to modern music than shoddily recycled angsty teen rock with a southern drawl, before being forced to pay attention to the drastically evolving sound and destructive shows the band were creating.
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Satisfyingly, there’s no longer any hints at imitation to be questioned. The band have very much found their own voice, starting with 2013’s Melophobia, adopting and constructing a 21st century style based on everything from blues to 60s to grunge rock.
Social Cues spans 13 tracks laden with honey-sweet vocals and warm synths played over darker, seductive undertones, resulting in their most sophisticated and captivating offering yet.
Here’s our breakdown of Social Cues, track by track:
Unsettling percussion grabs the listener immediately, before making way for a confident, boisterous opening track, weighted with both optimism and ominous tones, and lyrics such as “Tell me why I’m forced to live in this skin, I’m an alien” clashing with the driving beat. The use of a mellotron in place of guitars gives it a southern movie-esque feel, whilst the song wastes no time setting the tone for the rest of the album.
The eponymous track takes the pace down a notch, immediately demonstrating the new level of maturity reached with this release. Psychedelic, wavering synth sounds delicately balance with a dancing baseline and Shultz’s muted vocals in the verses. The chorus has the appeal of a humid summer’s day, leisurely and bright.
Initially a slow burner of the album, after a few listens ‘Black Madonna’ is a sexy, cinematic journey, with the ability to conjure a whole new environment in your head. Speaking of the album recording, Shultz said "When I'm creating, I try to put myself in a reactive state of improvisational thought. I let images just arise in my mind and wait for it to evoke an emotional response and then when it does, I know I'm on to something. I was watching a lot of Fassbinder films, like World on a Wire and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I was thinking about their beauty coupled with the graphic surrealism of Aronofsky.” ‘Black Madonna’ embodies all these things, the vivid imagery of a “soft glow on the city”, coupled with a dark, flirtatious edge takes you on a journey through a graphic new world.
‘Night Running’ feat. Beck
‘Night Running’ sounds worlds away from anything CTE have attempted before. The song is a curious lovechild between Twenty One Pilots style jaunty verses and Alt-J reminiscent harmonies in the chorus. The band struggled to find a direction for the verses on the song, handing it to Beck, who apparently turned it around in about 24 hours, with alternative versions in the wings too.
‘Skin and Bones’
Continuing the sultry overtones of the album, ‘Skin and Bones’ has a nostalgic, psychedelic sound layered with moving strings and impassioned vocals. “Blind devising ways to lead the blind, and it seems as if there’s no end in sight” croons Shultz quietly before a dramatic crescendo to the final chorus, the perfect outro to take the listener into…
‘Ready to Let Go’
As the first single released and the powerhouse from the album, ‘Ready to Let Go’ addresses the elephant - no pun intended - in the room; Matt Shultz’s divorce from Juliette Buchs. Accompanied by a dark video featuring himself clad in a skin-tight blood-red latex suit, among clips of a blood-covered couple with nails puncturing their hands, the song opens with the line “Sun went down over, sun went down over Pompeii”, a reference to a trip Shultz and Juliette took during which they realised their marriage was unsalvageable. The pain of the trauma is apparent in the jagged delivery of the frank lyrics, despite hopeful lyrics like “Don't you worry, baby, no sense trying to change it. I'mma strike these matches, never had control, I'm ready to let go”.
‘House of Glass’
A stand-out track of the album, ‘House of Glass’ sits among the more polished tracks, reminding fans of Cage The Elephant’s gritty earlier days, building from a menacing bass opening into a frantic, panicked blur of guitar and repeated lyrics.
‘Love’s The Only Way’
The intensity of the previous track unwinds into a dreamy incarnation of the band’s new-found maturity, demonstrating a sound reminiscent of the Unpeeled album; stripped back and minimalistic. Leaning heavily on heartfelt lyrics such as “Look out for yourself, it’s all the rage” and “One day you’ll find life’s not a game, it’s not the wave that moves the sea, but the sea that moves the waves” the vocals are accompanied by not much more than a quiet, glimmering guitar and a subtle strings-like echo. It feels like a welcome palette cleanser among a texturally complex album.
‘The War Is Over'
The lower tone is sustained with ‘The War Is Over’, a meticulously produced, clean track – a far cry from the beginning of the band’s journey. The track is testament to the previous albums Melophobia and Tell Me I’m Pretty, which showed increasing degrees of precision and particularity, focusing more on melodic content and seamless sounds than the earlier frantic, rough-around-the edges sounds the band crept onto the alternative scene with.
Similarly, ‘Dance Dance’, among other gems littered throughout Social Cues, is the pinnacle of the 60s-inspired, fuzzy sound the band have been working towards since 2015. The neo-blues influences from previous producer Dan Auerbach are undeniable, resulting in a song that, although it wouldn’t look out of place in The Black Keys’ back catalogue, Cage’s idiosyncratic take elevates it to the next level.
‘What I’m Becoming’
A song The Last Shadow Puppets will wish they had written, ‘What I’m Becoming’ seems to document the end of the emotional journey this album undertakes. It’s a dampened, subdued, hazy track complete with glimmering synth and haunting strings.
Through the recording of the album Shultz “explored the hidden recesses of his psyche, creating characters to tell different parts of his personal story,” according to a statement, a technique which is apparent on tracks like Tokyo Smoke. The song brings a burst of energy back into the album, a last warm embrace before plunging into the most sentimental, tender moment of the offering.
Poignantly placed at the end of the album, ‘Goodbye’ can only be described as the sonic equivalent of heartbreak; The type of heartbreak where your insides physically hurt and words do little to explain the pain. Even on first listen it’s unsettlingly intimate, with every single word carrying a raw, powerful emotional charge, demanding you to vicariously live through the frontman’s despair. “Seems like yesterday I was a child, just a ripple in the folds of time, I wish you well, I want to see you smile, it’s all right, goodbye, goodbye” The John Lennon-inspired piece was written for Shultz’s wife as their marriage broke apart, and was recorded in one take before he walked out of the room, subsequently cancelling the next two weeks of recording.
Social Cues is released on 19 April 2019 via Columbia Records.