Released today, ‘Social Cues’, the fifth studio album from London-based Kentucky band Cage The Elephant is a sobering and deeply personal glimpse into the marriage breakdown of lead singer Matt Schultz.
Speaking of the album’s subject matter, Schultz said,
“It can be a vehicle to act things out that are hard to confront. I let images just arise in my mind and wait for it to evoke an emotional response and then when it does, I know I’m onto something.”
Thirteen tracks long, ‘Social Cues’ takes its influences from a variety of sources, including 70s UK punk with first track, ‘Broken Boy’. Opening with a spacey intro which quickly descends into a hard rock drum rhythm. The track calls up memories of The Jam and The Clash with Schultz spitting out his staccato vocals, an urgency to the song in terms of tempo. We hit the ground running, left with no doubt as to the pain Schultz is feeling. Lyrics such as
I was burned by the cold kiss of a vampire
I was bit by the whisper of a soft liar
tell of the deep despair he’s feeling as his marriage breaks down irrevocably.
This borrowing from the greats of the past continues with second and title track, ‘Social Cues’, which feels like they’ve visited the Bowie songbook for inspiration, with the synthy opening reminiscent of ‘Ashes To Ashes’. The deeply personal nature of the album confronts us in this song, which sees Schultz finding difficulty in combining fame with his private life. He hints at the possibility of suicide:
Close your eyes, don’t be afraid
Take some of these, they’ll ease the pain
Live fast, die young, pay the price
The best die young, immortalised
I don’t have the strength to play nice
The response however is always the same,
People always say, “man, at least you’re on the radio”
as if that’s the solution to everything.
‘Black Madonna’ sees Schultz thinking everything can be saved, he’s still trying, but his wife isn’t interested. She takes
the last flight out of LAX
With your one-way ticket, New York-bound
He tries to reconcile, only to be lied to:
On the phone you sound shifty
You say that you’re at home, alone right now
But in the background there’s a muffled laugh
As you spin that wool and bullet down
The languid, ethereal vocals cloak the pain, there’s a feeling almost of resignation, like Schultz has given up the fight.
There’s a positive vibe in fourth track, ‘Night Running’, which is a refreshing amalgam of musical influences, including EDM, DnB, and even hip hop and calypso. It was this track which saw the band team up with Beck, and it adds a lighter touch to the album, in spite of lyrics which speak of
a world of secrets and demons and people hiding from the sun
There’s a reason for this lightness. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Matt and his brother Brad, the guitarist with the band, shared that the song was actually written some years before and
“Matt was leaving [the studio] early every day, and I got super-pissed and told him he wasn’t trying,” Brad Shultz said. They ended up sending the track to Beck, who sent it back with his verses within 24 hours.
It certainly didn’t destroy their relationship,
“We feel like we’ve pushed ourselves, and that’s all we can ask for,” says Brad. “We became better friends. It doesn’t mean that we got along the whole time, but in the end, adversity brings you closer.”
Track 5, ‘Skin And Bones’ sees Matt Schultz at his most desperate
I’ve been running for so long
All that’s left is skin and bones
Close my eyes and fight to carry on
Sometimes it makes no sense at all
If I stumble, will I fall?
If I fall I’ll tuck and roll
Close my eyes and let the love light guide me home
Let the love light guide me home
Despite the turmoil and sadness of the subject matter, there’s a darkly poetic beauty in all the lyrics, with this track being a very good example. “Let the love light guide me home” is a very familiar phrasing, while other lines such as “All the shining sidewalks, they were lying” convey perfectly how everything can look fine on the outside, but in Schultz’s life it was anything but.
Song 6, ‘Ready To Let Go’ says it all in the title, and with the story of a trip to Pompeii sealed the deal on the end of the marriage. Infidelity on both sides rang the death knell, and Schultz takes inspiration from his surroundings with lyrics such as
As we slow danced, I became your statue, frozen
Times I wonder, are we just a puff of smoke?
Fire and smoke are used frequently in this track to illustrate the situation, such as “I’ma strike these matches”, “I’ma spread these ashes” and there’s an almost guilty feeling at taking pleasure from the gorgeousness of these lyrics when they’re so clearly full of despair and devoid of hope.
‘House Of Glass’ borrows once again from the greats, this time it’s a vibe reminiscent of The Ramones, and maybe some Iggy Pop and the Stooges. It’s hard rocking and guitar led and although it’s focusing on Schultz’s utter separation and disinterest in everything, you get the feeling that he’s found it a cathartic release. Some brilliant synths underneath the fuzzy guitar as he spits out his pain and anger.
‘Loves The Only Way’ is a nice – and quite surprising – juxtaposition to the previous track. Opening with strings, guitars, and a dusty vocal, there’s a Lennon vibe, with ethereal backing vocals. This continues with track 9, ‘The War Is Over’, which reminds me of the anthemic pop of Robbie Williams’ ‘By All Means Necessary’, maybe crossed with New Order. We can feel a resignation in more than just the title (although that pretty much says all that needs to be said).
You can build your walls, build ’em to the sky
One day you will find love was on both sides
The war is over
There’s so many different musical styles on this album, there’s something for everyone. ‘Dance Dance’, the tenth track, is nicely electro, again with the Bowie influence, and maybe a hint of Blur (we’re reminded of ‘Girls And Boys’). Moving into the 11th song, ‘What I’m Becoming’, again with ethereal vocals, it’s a smooth, slow, lounge style track, which gives it a Bryan Ferry feel; Schultz may well want us to think this, with the inclusion of lyrics such as
Never meant to hurt you, no
Never meant to make you cry
(I’m just a jealous guy)
Penultimate song ‘Tokyo Smoke’ draws from Kraut Rock, calling to mind Kraftwerk, even Falco, with a strong synthy dystopian sound a la Gary Numan. It’s upbeat sonically but lyrically it’s angry and desperate. Schultz spits out the lyrics – he’s had enough. He’s been leading a double life, but that’s it. It’s all over. And indeed, it is with final song, ‘Goodbye’, gut-wrenchingly sad. Sombre, dark piano drawing on the likes of Ben Folds, and Tom Odell, even Beck. It’s sad sad sad.
So many things I want to say to you
So many sleepless nights I prayed for you
My heart’s an ashtray and I lost my mind
You bring the smokes, I’ve got the time
‘Social Cues’ was produced by John Hill, and recorded at various locations including Battle Tapes Recording, Blackbird Studio and Sound Emporium in Nashville, and The Village Recording Studio, in Los Angeles. Cage The Elephant are playing 3 UK dates in June before touring the North America in July and August in a co-headliner with Beck. Find out more about Cage The Elephant from their official website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. ‘Social Cues’ is out today and further details of where you can stream and download it are available here.