Mainstream success is a curious thing. Those of us struggling to pay this month’s rent would gladly welcome fame and fortune, but for a group trying to remain true to its aesthetic, it can spark an existential crisis. Cage the Elephant’s 2009 self-titled debut yielded three hit singles (including “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” which turned up in more than a handful of commercials, movies and TV shows). So when frontman Matt Shultz writes “On this record I realized I was part of the hypocrisy. And I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a real piece of shit’” in the press release that accompanies Thank You Happy Birthday, it’s hardly surprising.
Albums rooted in self-loathing are nothing new (see In Utero or, more recently, MGMT’s Congratulations), and neither are any of the sounds on Thank You Happy Birthday, but it doesn’t really matter. While it’s impossible to listen to “Aberdeen” or “Paper Cut (Walk Around My Head)” and not hear the Pixies’ influence, the songs never sound derivative.
In addition to the impossibly catchy “2024” and “Shake Me Down,” the album boasts some raucous tracks. “Japanese Buffalo” —one of the record’s best songs — seamlessly blends ‘50s-inspired doo-wop with driving punk rock. However, “Indy Kids,” Shultz and company’s screaming indictment of jaded scenesters and their need to “get the right haircut” and “be just like you,” comes off as slightly contrived.
In truth, Thank You Happy Birthday is at its best when the band doesn’t beat us over the head with its angst and instead focuses on simply making music that sounds good. Slower tracks like the ode to aimlessness “Rubber Ball” and the subtle “Flow” are the album’s hidden gems, perfect for lazy drifting and repeat listening.
Ultimately, the hits outweigh the misses, and the men of Cage the Elephant prove themselves to be a dynamic band. Matt Shultz may think he’s a piece of shit, but we beg to differ.