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Review: ‘Social Cues’ by Cage the Elephant

Cage the Elephant lead singer Matt Shultz and his wife divorced after seven years, a marriage spanning four of the band’s five major LP releases and the early stages of Shultz’s high-voltage 30s. If there’s one thing the Kentucky native’s known for, it’s his unabashed lyrics about personal struggles that he belts over distorted guitar and heavy drums. He wants to let the world inside his head. 

Now, Shultz has never been closer to achieving just that. 

“Social Cues” opens with “Broken Boy” where Cage gets right to the point. The shrillness they ditched for 2015’s “Tell Me I’m Pretty” makes its grand re-entrance in a combination of furious lyrics and indistinct blaring. It’s easy to mistake this one as a return to form in “Thank You Happy Birthday” fashion, but there’s something outright unique about “Broken Boy” that’s hard to pin down. 

Follow-up tracks “Social Cues” and “Black Madonna” clear that right up. Layered guitar riffs heighten the rhythm to keep things moving in the former, while “Black Madonna” slows considerably as Shultz confronts the truth: “Nowhere left to run, nowhere left to hide / You’re not havin’ fun, I think that you should ride / Call me when you’re ready to be real / Black Madonna, my hallelujah,” he sings over the mirage-like chorus. 

This first stage tackles the doubt one feels even left face-to-face with the writing on the wall. Denial exists outside of the grieving stage – like it or not, there’s no escaping what becomes unfortunately clearer by the day – and Shultz conveys that in the context of failing marriage. 

Beck joins the fray in “Night Running” and delivers on his namesake. He offers wide perspective to the Kentucky rockers having spanned genres from alternative to hip-hop in his lengthy career. “Night Running” doesn’t sound like a Beck song by any means, but his impact comes down strong in conveying the paranoid tone: “Pull the night shade / Tell me what we’re hiding from … Are we for real, yeah / Or just pretending? / Will it burn out by the morning?” 

Dying relationships rarely go without a fight. “Night Running” discusses times when everything seems fine, could be fine, if it were possible to bottle that momentary hopefulness up for later when things aren’t. In times like these it seems there are three parties to a partnership, where the third fights for both sides. Except it always burns out by morning. 

Next is “Skin and Bones” boasting the finest melody on Cage’s fifth album. It’s the first true thematic shift in “Social Cues” where the group sheds its protective layer and surrenders to itself – metaphorically, since Shultz writes the lyrics, but the pace in this song shifts down about three gears from its predecessors. Whether the other band members understood Shutlz’s pain is irrelevant when they can convey it so convincingly this way. 

“Ready to Let Go” and “House of Glass” strip away the metaphor and what’s left is perhaps Cage at its most vulnerable. The two contradict one another brilliantly – “Ready to Let Go” touts acceptance, followed closely by the anger and aggression in “House of Glass.” It’s a one-two punch of pure instinct that exists positively after every breakup. 

“Love’s the Only Way” is effective in delivering a message but slacks compared to the rest of “Social Cues.” It doesn’t have much going for it besides its contribution to the narrative and a haunting mix of string melodies, but Cage is always good for one or two of these – see “Rubber Ball” and “How Are You True” from past albums. True slow songs don’t fit Cage’s identity. 

“The War Is Over” delivers revelation, combining raw emotion with logic to achieve what’s likely this album’s brightest and darkest point. “You can build your walls, love will tear it down / You can hide your heart inside a manmade house / You can build your walls, build ‘em to the sky / One day you will find, love was on both sides / The war is over, love’s already won.” Knowing this is half the battle of moving on, and often the easier one – the other half is learning to live with love even after it’s gone. 

Kicking off the back end of the album, “Dance Dance” is a numbing ejection from emotion. Backing vocals majorly comprise the chorus without the use of words. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid when all that’s left is to feel. That Cage can flip this switch with ease is a testament not just to their musical prowess, but their comfort in showing their human side. 

“What I’m Becoming” and “Tokyo Smoke” deserve the most praise here from a strictly enjoyment perspective because they get better with each listen. While I’d not advise shuffling through “Social Cues” since it’s as close to a concept album as a band can get without fully committing, these two take a few more listens than the rest. Five, six times through, and it’ll make sense. 

The album ends on “Goodbye” with the best use of strings Cage has mustered since it adopted them two years ago for a live show. “Seems like yesterday I was a child / Just a ripple in the folds of time / I wish you well, I wanna see you smile / It’s alright, goodbye,” Shultz admits. 

He also managed just one recording of the final song, singing through tears, before disappearing from the studio for weeks. Some way to close out an album. 

“Social Cues” works outside-in at the root cause, feelings and pain of losing someone despite endless attempts at solving the relationship. The unfortunate truth is that it can’t be solved. At some point, the war is over. 

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