Looking a 13 track gift horse in the mouth feels like a constitutionally dickish crime, particularly when all 13 tracks happen to be pretty goshdarn good. That’s the case with Social Cues, the new Cage the Elephant’s record, not quite a breakup record, but rather a reconciliation record where the complicated emotions of separation announce themselves in the song titles—“Broken Boy,” “Ready to Let Go,” “House of Glass,” and, of course, “Goodbye.” The band, since releasing their self-named debut album in 2008, has built a reputation for knocking out genre-defying alt-rock jams that lodge in the ear and remain there no matter how thoroughly the listener swabs.
But Social Cues, for all its best merits (which are considerable), is notably absent of that catchy quality. It’s good, but unmemorable: One listen, two listens, three listens, four…each song falls away like meat off the bone. Diners want that to happen; audiences eager to hear the latest from their favorite acts don’t. What makes that observation so painful is the material’s personal nature. No one wants to talk ugly about a document of marital dissolution or to tell an artist that their pain, the grief and anguish are forgettable. You may as well throw all morality to the wind and kick a puppy.
Not engaging with the work, though, would be another kind of insult for a band that’s been active for over a decade and dropped five albums in that timeframe. And it is that professionalism and workmanship that makes Social Cues so frustrating. They’ve long proven that they have a real gift for writing songs that write themselves into people’s DNA, taking up residence on their shelf of personal pop culture recollections; walk past a preacher lecturing anyone within shouting distance that “there ain’t no rest for the wicked,” and like a reflex hammer to a knee, you’ll add that “money don’t grow on trees.” It doesn’t matter a lick that their first successful single is built on clichés. Bills to pay? Mouths to feed? Nothing in this world is free? You don’t say. All the same, that song endures.
Social Cues has a small share of tracks that may also echo in memory years from now, when it’s had time to crystallize and fully develop an identity within Cage the Elephant’s oeuvre. “Broken boy / how does it feel,” Matt Shultz howls on the chorus of the record’s opener, a nod to his recent divorce—comprising at a portion of the fuel funneled into Social Cues’ tank—but better thought of as an engine for starting off the show in style. “Broken Boy” is a banger. The fuzzy, distorted grunge aesthetic is perfectly suited to highlight the Kentucky drawl that makes Shultz’s voice immediately distinguishable. There’s character in the track’s unpolished polish.
From there: dissonance. Cage the Elephant thrives, in a way, on disharmony in the sense that no two songs in a row ever sound alike, so as the surf dude rock ‘n roll sonics of “Broken Boy” conclude, they give way to slower pacing in the alt-pop influenced title track, and then to a string of funky, groovy, bluesy tunes ranging from “Black Madonna” to “Ready to Let Go,” “Night Running” (featuring an appearance from Beck) to “Skin and Bones.” That’s classic Cage the Elephant, experimenting with new sounds, pushing the edges of what their fans expect them to sound like and in so doing pounding out the band’s very identity, hammer to anvil.
But when the music stops, so does Social Cues’ effect. Life moves on. Shultz’s cathartic expressions fade away, even as Goodbye, the closer, plays out. It isn’t a crime for an album to merely be “good,” and to fail to brand itself directly on the brain. Not everything can have that level of impact on its audience. But Cage the Elephant’s brand rests in part on an easy talent for consistently producing work at that level. If Social Cues isn’t a bad album by any stretch; it’s nonetheless, in the band’s discography, surprisingly generic.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.