Six years and three albums after its debut self-titled album, it’s time to stop lamenting that Cage The Elephant doesn’t sound like they did. The Kentucky band is admittedly less brazen, less brash than 2009’s breakthrough. The snark of single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “In One Ear” is gone. But like they say themselves in that very first opening track, “So all the critics who despise us / go ahead and criticize us. / It’s your tyranny that drives us, / adds the fire to our flames.”
With each subsequent album, Cage The Elephant his changed its identity even more. 2011’s Thank You Happy Birthday was an intentional rejection of its predecessor, moving more towards post-punk; 2013’s Melophobia indulged in glam (relevant, considering frontman Matthew Shultz’s penchant for wild stage antics) and classic garage rock. Additionally, the band tried to write more openly and honestly with each set of songs.
Yet, Cage The Elephant’s fourth album is titled like a plea. Tell Me I’m Pretty almost seems to question itself before it even hits ears. Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys and The Arcs) produced Tell Me I’m Pretty, and his influence can be heard all over the record. Guitars chop and buzz like Auerbach’s signature sounds, while an overarching synth sparkle seems like a wink to Danger Mouse’s influence on the duo’s later work.
As a result, Cage The Elephant’s fourth record sounds safe, inoffensive. The band cites classic rock influences like The Doors, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles. “Sweetie Little Jean” borrows from mid-era Beatles (and who doesn’t like that?) while “Cold Cold Cold” opens with a keyboard riff reminiscent of one of The Doors’ biggest hits, “Hello, I Love You.” Lyrically, Cage The Elephant tries to tell more serious stories, an admirable attempt that emotional transparency. In fact, “Sweetie Little Jean” is true tale about a girl who was abducted and killed, but a bouncy rhythm and predictable rhymes muddle its impact.
Yet, even with all the identity changes, Shultz seems to give the old version of his band a subtle nod in “Trouble.” He sings, “Will I come to pass or will I pass the test? / You know what they say, yeah, the wicked get no rest.” Sometimes the past can come back to haunt you; sometimes you choose to haunt your past.