What comes next for an alternative artist who has already achieved festival-headliner status? The common path leads to a stagnant phase of radio-friendly fillers and follows a gradual decline in both fame and artistry. On the other hand, those who critique themselves through an ongoing phase of reinvention establish their names with longevity and legacy. It is startling that even Cage The Elephant, a pioneer of the alternative rock revival in the 2010s, have not yet (or simply cannot) fully extricated themselves from the conventional post-pinnacle downhill trajectory.
As the follow-up to their Grammy-winning album Tell Me I’m Pretty, Social Cues is Cage The Elephant’s safest and least experimental record to date. By no means is there anything deplorable with playing it safe – it is almost expected that artists would somehow adhere to the styles that resemble the identities they are recognized for. Yet compared to the youthful rawness of their previous records, Social Cues sounds too close to their comfort zone and underwhelming in comparison to its predecessors. It sounds like a record produced in their homely studio without venturing out in the process of production. Yes, for a decade-old band like Cage The Elephant, it is both foreseeable and justifiable that their fifth album will sound less-exciting as they retreat back to their roots, yet Social Cues fails to articulate a cohesive album concept of this mid-career crisis with coherence.
Structure-wise, Social Cues is like a clueless teen who is self-consciously wary of social cues yet still has trouble picking up most of them. In the sense of turbulence, the first half of the album feels like a distorted misconception of social cues that echoes a chaotic journey of a rock star’s freakout. Social Cues centers on frontman Shultz’s divorce from his wife and exudes bleakness. This trajectory is paralleling the self-doubt the band is currently experiencing with five albums under their belt. In that sense, Social Cues pitches a poignant tone for such a pains-of-fame album, yet musically and lyrically, the songs equivocate and take a while to further elaborate on the emotions.
The hidden gems of Social Cues are concentrated toward the latter half as they deliver the poignancy that the first half lacked. “House of Glass” is not like your hackneyed rock anthem. The song is amped up with distorted bass and guitar that resemble the undertone of post-punk’s existential despair and impending doom. “It’s an illusion, this admiration / Of mutilation / My isolation,” Shultz growls with angst in the chorus, frantically lamenting his solitude. This apocalyptic thinking lingers and collides with love in the following track, “Love’s The Only Way.” The symphonic arrangements amplify Schultz’s affections with a sentimental touch. On the closing track, “Goodbye,” Shultz strips down and delivers his farewell to his ex-wife with, “I wish you well, I want to see you smile / It’s alright, goodbye / Goodbye.” He reaches an epiphany with the line “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye / I won’t cry, I won’t cry, I won’t cry.”
With all being said, Social Cues is an absolutely fine record. By no means will a safe record like Social Cues doom the career of Grammy-winning Cage The Elephant. Nonetheless, if mediocrity is an ongoing phenomenon for their upcoming (if any) projects, Cage The Elephant would really confine themselves into a cage of banality. Perhaps they really need to bring an elephant into their studio to force themselves out of their comfort zone.
Stephen Yang is a freshman at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].