It is a long rock & roll tradition: writing songs about the high price of success in exhaustion, sanity and lasting relationships. Modern-rock stars Cage the Elephant take a turn on Social Cues, their fifth studio album. And the bill comes due with a vengeance. “I was promised the keys to an empire,” singer Matt Shultz claims in the opening garage-rock sprint “Broken Boy.” But he is already lost and fried in the next track, the title song. “I don’t have the strength to play nice,” Shultz admits against a tightly wound mix of dirty-glam keyboards and space-cowboy steel guitar. “People always say/Man, at least you’re on the radio,” he notes in the chorus. It sounds like cold comfort.
If this is an old story, Social Cues is a dynamic, uncommon telling by a Kentucky-born band that has been hard to pin down since its 2009 breakout “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” a million-selling single with acoustic-bottleneck guitar, hip-hop stride and Shultz’s deceptively jaunty vocal bit – Iggy Pop with a Southern outcast’s edge. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach brought out the Sixties-Nuggets wiring in Cage’s knotty alt-rock riffing and punchy hooks when he produced 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty. The band, in turn, acknowledged the strains of New Wave Britain also lurking there when they covered the Stranglers and Wreckless Eric on 2017’s live Unpeeled.
Social Cues, in comparison, is full-on American gothic. The album was produced by John Hill, a surprising choice given his chart and Grammy wins with Eminen, Rhianna and Portugal. The Man. But Hill’s pop focus and Cage’s eccentric vigor generate a band-driven tension of cleverly drawn shadows and silver-lining choruses that suggest Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers if they had been raised on the Cure and Berlin-era David Bowie instead of the Byrds and the Zombies. The Bowie flourish in “Social Cues” is nearly literal, a curdled-synth lick respectfully descended from the one in his 1980 classic of drifting and dependency “Ashes to Ashes.” “Night Running,” which features Shultz in duet with Beck, is a midnight creep with dub-reggae effects a la the Clash’s Sandinista!.
But the urgency on Social Cues is all present tense. In “House of Glass,” guitarist Brad Shultz escalates the turbulence in his brother’s machine-gun rhyming with staccato bursts of wiry fuzz while upper-cut power chords punctuate the brawny, martial stomp of bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion. “Love’s the Only Way” is a softer landing with strings and spatial, chiming guitar until you hit the jolts of regret and Matt’s deflated certainty (“You make up the rules/Or so they claim”). And if “Tokyo Smoke” starts like something from the Cure’s early anguish, Cage finish it with their own damaged grandeur, a heavy, brooding rock and orchestral flair as conflicted as their singer. As Shultz puts it from inside the blowout, “My public smile, my double face/Half in the light, half in the shade/Need some fresh air, no place tonight.”
Cage the Elephant are not the first band to make a record about the reckoning and crossroads in rock & roll life. They won’t be the last. The lesson is obvious: Be careful what you wish for. But when it comes, get it down in vivid detail. By that measure, on Social Cues, Cage the Elephant pay these dues in full.