Review Summary: Tell me I'm back
For a while now, Cage the Elephant have felt like they’re caught in between sounds. Each album they’ve released recently (perhaps ever) has felt restless, eager to move on even before whatever it’s doing has been done. This is why even in its plainness I found some vague comfort in their previous album, Tell Me I’m Pretty
. It was easily their weakest offering, but in a way it was the most assured they’d sounded in their own shoes since their debut, offering a solid foundation that they easily could’ve built off of.
Maybe that’s why it’s so disappointing that Social Cues
returns to that scattershot style of yore, continuing to throw jaunty pop-rock songs of varying quality and substance at the wall without hanging around to see what sticks. There’s certainly an admirable abandon to this approach that impresses, despite the fact that the flow is so nonexistent that I regularly had to check my phone to make sure I hadn’t accidentally set it to shuffle. The transitions seem to purposefully wreck its own few tender moments, such was when it crashes the jagged gentleness of ballad “Love’s the Only Way” against the flamboyant snyth/drum intro of “The War Is Over.”
Many tracks on here have their own unique defining elements, it's just that they’re used in a strangely disinterested way. One can listen through the whole album casually without being surprised, but when one really listens to the sounds presented there’s a serious adventurousness that’s lurking underneath that’s just strangely hard to pinpoint. One knock to this sonic exploration is that while a lot of the instrumentation can be mesmerizing, such as “Black Madonna”’s subtle brandishing of a steel guitar against a string backing, the vocal melodies singer Matt Schultz provides over them are just dreadful. As smooth and vibrant the sound of “Skin and Bones” is, Schultz’s tepid delivery of “Let the love-light guide me home” acts as a pie in the face.
I’m being far too hard on the album. It’s certainly more engaging than Pretty
, the best moments like the just plain violent “House of Glass” and mix of surf guitars and distortion found in the opener are given more than enough time to shine even if they cut out just before they threaten to kick into hyper-drive. Between these power-rockers and the moving ballads, its clear that the gray areas here are what fall between the cracks. As it is, Social Cues
proves yet again that Cage the Elephant are a good band that can easily craft good tunes just detached enough from reality to make them interesting, but the farther they’re driven to the extremes of their sound, the more convincing they are .