How, exactly, did they get here from there?
When Cage the Elephant, the Nashville-based indie band (who play the Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on July 31), first burst onto the rock ‘n’ roll scene in 2008, their music and mythology seemed tailor-made for the post-financial-crisis era. The band’s de facto leaders, brothers Matt and Brad Shultz, had grown up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Bowling Green, Kentucky, dumpster-diving for their first drum kit and enduring the slings and arrows ever reserved for the poorer kids in town.
On their self-titled first album, Cage spoke to the economic and social despair they knew all too well, during a moment when a growing number of Americans—particularly middle Americans—were coming to know it, too. The band did this with a mixture of country blues and straight-up funk that made their brand of garage rock versatile yet slightly schizophrenic, coloring outside the musical lines enough to catch the attention of the critics and an ardent indie fan base.
The band’s radio-friendly breakout single, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” was ubiquitous when it dropped in June of that year. Inspired by a friend of the band who sold drugs to get by, the song wears its heart on its sleeve, siding with the underclass and sympathetic to the sellers of sex and drugs forced to use what social capital they’ve got to make their way in the world. As protest music, it’s lyrically predictable—even politically tame. But there’s an aching sincerity in all that wrong-side-of-the-tracks sentiment that makes you like the band.
The real promise in Cage’s debut effort existed in a pair of rougher-souled tunes that never made the cultural mark that “Wicked” did. “James Brown” and “Back Against the Wall” mash up honky-tonk piano, soul bass lines and straight-up American guitar in three-and-half-minute catchy melodies designed to blow the fuse box (if not the entire house). This is hick-funk with more edge in it than anything The Black Keys ever daydreamed. When the lyrics weren’t trying too hard to be meaningful—and they very often were—the earliest Cage songs carried a class-conscious edge that felt both of the moment and timeless. The band’s best tracks scorned playing on the safe side yet feared the fate of the middle Americans they saw sent to for-profit prisons and drug treatment centers—“Some sunny day they’re going to come for you.” This was rock as prescient as it was powerful, a harbinger of things to come.
Cage’s sophomore album in 2011 was a derivative honorable mention. No true Pixies fan can fault the band for “Thank You, Happy Birthday”: the record was ambitious and fun, the best of the 1990s everywhere on display. But there is nothing particularly original about its production values or the songs themselves. There are standout tracks on the record, most notably fan favorite “Shake Me Down.” This is a good track that gets even better when you see it performed live, the refrain a sudden burst of much-needed optimism—“I keep my eyes fixed on the sun”—made to be sung by a crowd.
In the end what made the band a comer was the influences early Cage welcomed—The Pixies, of course, but also Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Strokes, Nick Cave and the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—coupled with the frantic, antic, stage-diving brilliance of their live shows. For a while, Cage seemed destined to be a live act putting out studio albums to justify the frenzied joy of their jams.
And then came 2013’s “Melaphobia.”
What made this so brilliant a breakout album is Cage’s invention of a completely new garage melancholic vibe perfectly suited to Matt Shultz’s plaintive voice. Throughout “Melaphobia,” he shifts effortlessly from a growl to a whisper to a wail, often in a single song, as in the hit single, “Come a Little Closer,” and the too-bombastic, slightly bawdy, still-it-kinda-works “It’s Just Forever.“ This is an album of many themes—regret, isolation, anger, longing—revved up, punked out, and performed in studio with the reckless abandon once reserved for Cage’s live shows.
“Melaphobia” is gorgeously unafraid of its own shifting moods. “Take It or Leave It”— disco by way of the garage—is the exception that proves the album’s moody rule. Funky, quirky and effortlessly danceable, it was the feel-good indie song of that summer, with its roller disco video and ability to get festival crowds not only moving, but grooving. Inside the beat, there’s the aching plaint of Shultz’s voice, swooning even before we do, always sounding a little like he’s going to cry if we “leave it.” And how could we?
The album also showcased the band’s ability to compose the perfect garage ballad: love songs for the cool kids. “Melaphobia” is nowhere more on point than in “Cigarette Daydreams” and “Telescope.” The former is a dreamy, moody ode to a first love lost—“If we can find a reason, a reason to change / Looking for the answer / If you can find a reason, a reason to stay / Standin’ in the pouring rain”—that reminds us that letting go of the old is the only way to usher in the new. The latter is the tale of a male, modern-day Eleanor Rigby who “Sits around inside his house / From room to room he moves about / Fills his life with pointless things / And wonders how it all turns out.” There’s a childlike sweetness to both songs, sung in a Shultz’s near-whisper and made complete by a set of early rock ’n’ roll-styled do-do-do-dos.
With “Melaphobia,” Cage crafted one of the truly essential rock ’n’ roll records of the past decade—maybe the past quarter-century. From such triumph follows the inevitable question: What next? “I always told people we were gonna be successful,” Matt Shultz said in an early interview. “I don’t know if I knew what that meant. I was always like ‘yeah, we’re gonna do it—we’re gonna go out there, this is gonna happen.’” “Melaphobia” was one version of what the band’s success looked like.
A second, more commercial version came in the form of their next album, the late 2015 release, “Tell Me I’m Pretty.” What’s good about that record feels like a continuation of all that made “Melaphobia” great, with an homage to early garage band The Troggs thrown in for good measure. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, critics called “Pretty” “more mature” than “Melaphobia,” which is not necessarily a good thing.
Still, it landed Cage a Best Rock Album win at the fifty-ninth Grammy Awards ceremony, cementing the band’s status as an industry powerhouse, even as a series of transcendent live shows assured early fans that the band’s stage-diving, crowd-surfing ways survived mass-market adulation.
Which brings us to “Social Cues,” Cage’s esoteric, uneven yet oddly potent new album, produced by John Hill (Florence + the Machine, Portugal the Man). Plagued at times by conventional lyrics and a musical jumble that keeps us guessing (and wondering if the band even knows) where this ambitious effort is headed, its influences are manifest. Listen to the album not at all closely and you’ll hear early eighties-era Bowie, experimentation in reggae dub, a nod to the forgotten British aughts band Travis, a dose of funked-out Strokes, and shades of a croony Alex Turner. And, of course, Beck, as influencer, collaborator and vocalist on the album’s radio-friendly “Still Running.”
That musical confusion ends up being part of the album’s uneven brilliance. “Social Cues” plays as well from beginning to end—which is to say, as a genuine long-player—as any Cage album not called “Melaphobia.” But there’s darkness here, too. This is a death-haunted album, focused on the end of Matt Shultz’s marriage and the loss of several of the band family members and close friends. None of this should be dance material, but there’s a macabre, groovable minor-key vibe to “Social Cues” that is both disconcerting and absolutely original.
The album’s title track sets the tone for the record. It’s an indie set-piece that works off an “Ashes to Ashes” riff: snazzy, hypnotic, danceable. The public self far removed from the private self is explored in the song’s scenario of a fame-phobic performer pleading— “Hide me in the back room / Tell me when it’s over” —as though he’s in retreat from himself and everything people think about him.
That spellbound sense of wanting out of one’s own life segues perfectly into what is arguably the record’s best track, “Black Madonna.” This moody, mid-tempo piece ventures into the musical territory of the Arctic Monkeys’ “AM” album, with a dose of late-era Kooks thrown in for good measure. There’s a spooky religiosity at work here, as a middle-of-the-night invitation from a mystery woman—“Call me when you’re ready to be real”—topples easy Christian morality. The record feels deliberately eerie, blending the sexy and sinister with a side of American witchy punk (think Le Butcherettes). Even when the songs operate in the commercial-friendly zone of “Tell Me I’m Pretty”—which “Black Madonna” does—the groove is richer and more resonant than anything on that earlier record.
“Ready To Let Go,” the album’s first single, is as sexy a breakup song as you’re likely to encounter. It takes its origin from a trip Matt Shultz took with his then-wife to the ruins of Pompeii, the great Roman city swallowed up by volcanic overflow in A.D. 79. Listeners might complain about the self-grandiosity of interpreting a falling-apart marriage vis-à-vis a natural disaster of epic proportions. But there’s hope in this narrative, too: their relationship doesn’t survive that visit to the ruins, but they do, in some broken, altered form.
The lyrics themselves barely get out alive—Shultz compares himself to a frozen statue, wonders if he and his lover are just a puff of smoke, even speaks from underneath a bed of ashes. That’s a lot of overbearing allegory for a single song. But this, of course, is the brilliant thing about rock ’n’ roll: a dope bass, a seductive groove, and one good lyric among a dozen or so over-the-top lines can redeem the entire effort, sometimes brilliantly: “Ima strike these matches / I’m ready to let go.” Sometimes you embrace the falling apart because that’s the only move you have left.
In a slower, softer vein, the fetchingly understated “What I’m Becoming” fuses dreamy synths and Electric Light Orchestra-influenced strings with lyrics that speak to that wretched feeling of watching someone you love float away. The fleeting nostalgia of one of the album’s finest lines—“Everything you wanted seems so far from me”—showcases Matt Shultz’s voice at its best, the ache in his throat simple and pure yes, even sweet.
Contrast this with the album’s weakest moment, its closing track, “Goodbye.” This is a song of the “It’s ending but I still love you” variety, a track that feels self-indulgent, overly earnest and oddly laconic. In short, not at all Cage. To be clear, the self-indulgence isn’t the problem here: what’s a great broken-hearted love song without the requisite dose of self-pity? But “Goodbye” is so bare-bones melodically and lyrically that it barely conjures emotion, never coming close to the garage ballad majesty of the love-and-loss songs that make “Melaphobia” such a brilliant, essential album.
Despite its myriad of influences and momentary lapses, Cage has created something new and not at all derivative with “Social Cues.” There’s a splash of cynicism where there used to be ache and urging. There’s something mysterious and seductive where there once was familiar funk. Brokenheartedness now tempers youthful possibility. Yet somewhere, perhaps far in the distance, there remains a glimmer of the band’s trademark hope. “One thing that stood out to me,” Matt Shultz has said about the making of the album, “is the presence of joy within sadness and grief.”
Cage has always been a band in tune with that quintessential rock ‘n’ roll longing to be in a better and different place. This is a longing that is uniquely American—perhaps particularly middle American. Like the best artists, especially those with a deep sense of the environs that they hail from and all that it took to leave, Cage has mined that longing to yet again make itself new.
Cage the Elephant play Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island with Beck on July 31.
Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and the author of “Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors” and the founder of The Voices and Faces Project, a global storytelling project. She is also a contributor to “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” and the creator of A Rock Shock to the Status Quo, the concert to end rape.
R. Clifton Spargo is the author of the novel “Beautiful Fools,” award-winning short fiction, and music criticism in Huffington Post, “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” and The Yale Review.