New Horizons (Part 2) by John Foster

It’s interesting how we stumble across new music. Well, at least I find it interesting. Maybe you don’t. Fair play to you. We’re all strange in our own weird ways. You do you. Anyway, whether by friendly recommendation, promotional marketing, radio play, or gig support (including festival appearances), our attentions can sometimes be sufficiently drawn to lead us to explore an act’s output in more detail. Sometimes a single song (or fragment) is all it takes. Soon you’re snapping up a band’s back catalogue on eBay, scouring Record Collector for rare Japanese imports (prioritising those coloured vinyl pressings), and trawling obscure charity shops in the impossible hopes of finding that elusive bootleg recording from their infamous ’79 Dutch tour. You know, the one where the band were going through their brief but ill-fated avant-garde phase. They played a medley of their biggest hits rearranged on kitchen utensils to an audience of tulips. You know the one. The critics hated it and the fans continue to deny its very existence. But it really spoke to you. You Got It! And now you must have it! Indeed. We’ve all been there…

Where was I…? Ah, yes. Discovering new music. It’s important. It’s how we grow our musical tastes. It’s how we grow as people. For what are we without music? Seriously. I think Abba asked us that. Someone should really get back to them. Maybe that’s why they broke up? An existential angst they never fully recovered from. But then…they have just released their first new studio album in forty years, so maybe they found the answers after all? Makes you think…

And so much for introductions. 

In most cases the reality tends to be far more mundane. Nowadays, I find most new music through YouTube. For full disclosure I should note that certain aspects of it really grinds my gears. YouTube (the free version) is far from perfect. Which is probably the intent, but I won’t pay for it. The adverts remain a persistent annoyance (I refuse to buy any advertised product solely on principle) and the platform can occasionally be glitchy. But its algorithms do contain a special kind of magic, a mystical shaft of light that can show us the way, setting us on seldom discovered roads to exotic destinations, like a bell ringing inside your mind, towards one dream, one soul, one prize, one goal! Wait, have I just been referencing Queen lyrics? I feel another tangent coming on. No. Let’s fight the impulse. Let’s forge ahead. 

If the band you’ve stumbled across already have a sizeable back catalogue the activity is further heightened in two significant ways. Firstly, you can binge-listen everything available, really immersing yourself in the content. Not only can this be a pleasurable experience in of itself, but it enables you to better assess the band’s output against your own tastes. Will you continue to follow them? Will you go see them live? Will you defend the obvious merits of Live in Groningen in a Reddit thread at three in the morning? 

Secondly, it provides an opportunity for retrospective review, allowing you to consider the band’s musical development across their past releases. How have they changed? When were they at their best? Why did the lead guitarist play with a spatula and not a balloon whisk?  

It’s against this general backdrop that I’ll be discussing Cage the Elephant. I think their first video I saw was Trouble, followed by Cold Cold Cold, songs which both appear on their fourth studio album, Tell Me I’m Pretty. Which suggests that I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so let’s regroup. We can circle back here eventually.

Cage the Elephant are an American alt-rock band who have been sometime based in the UK. At time of writing they have released five studio albums and a live recording. Since forming in 2006 their line-up has remained largely consistent. They’ve toured extensively, received their fair share of critical acclaim, and won a couple of Grammy awards, including Best Rock Album in 2020. So far, so good, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Their first (self-titled) album was released in 2008. Opener, In One Ear, is an infectious sub-anthem, heavy on the drums (the cymbals take an especial pounding) and guitar, with some nice organ touches and fast paced lyrical delivery. It’s a mission statement of sorts, a garage manifesto which provides an outline for the rest of the project. It has a militantly indie (almost punky) feel which might otherwise suggest feelings of disaffection and alienation, if only the band weren’t evidently having so much fun! The second track, James Brown, remains similarly free and loose, though the organ has been momentarily replaced with piano. Track three, Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked, brings in some blue-grass vibes, the rhythms more hip-hop or big beat than straight rock. It calls back to the opener but also brings to mind something Beck might have attempted on Odelay. Which is no bad thing. It certainly skips along and sounds like the band’s first big single release hope. As elsewhere, lyrical delivery is quick, acerbic, and contains more than a hint of youthful rebellion. Tiny Little Robots, while hitting the same noisy peaks, also includes a more reflective passage which reminds me of Kula Shaker.

Lotus opens with metallic hits before briefly venturing into pseudo-disco territory, and a combination of sonic elements, including vocals, which almost sound like (dare I say it) the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Back Against the Wall is stripped back during the verses, the drums counting down to the explosive chorus, whilst a heavier rock guitar solo leads us to the finale. Drones in the Valley has a funky fuzz bass hook and boisterous drums, while the use of detuned guitar notes adds a neat twist.  Despite its title, Judas is surprisingly upbeat, featuring quick guitar licks and a mid-section which slows to a false end before everything resumes. Back Stabbin’ Betty employs a Rolling Stones rock shuffle. I’m not sure who Betty is, but the litany of insults and liberal use of expletives would suggest that the band are not fans! Soil to the Sun seems like a pretty traditional blues-rocker until it changes rhythm part way through to deliver an unexpected dynamic sting. Free Love completes the album with a frenzied charge to the finish line, feeling like a reimagined rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s Stone Free on steroids.

In summary, Cage the Elephant contains lots of different ideas, sometimes diffuse in places, but centrally themed and with enough vim and vigour to encourage repeat listens. With eleven tracks, each no more than three or four minutes in length, you can rattle right through this in no time. Even at this early stage the band demonstrate a confident swagger and their musicianship and delivery, though still raw in places, hints at future treasures. The screams, whoops, and hollers are worth the entry price alone.

Second album, 2011’s Thank You Happy Birthday, is, in many ways, more of the same though perhaps with a broader timbral palette and sharper musical focus, the culmination of their direction at that time. It could be argued that both these albums represent the band’s first phase of musical development. We have twelve songs this time around, running lengths being broadly similar as before with only a couple of exceptions. 

Always Something is the first track, drums tight and syncopated, guitars pleasantly distorted, vocals strident and engaging, it has a slightly electro feel (the chorus sounds a bit like Kasabian), the band experimenting with different effects, such as reverse drum loops, vocal treatments, and scratchy-vinyl samples. Aberdeen follows, more raucous and vital as if capturing a live performance. Guitars are detuned, drums splashy (if that’s even a word?) and vocals charged almost to breaking. It’s full of character and immediacy. 

Indy Kidz (yes, with a z) is the third track. It’s noizy (see, I can do it too) but evidently tongue-in-cheek and one for the adolescent mosh pit. Thrashy and screamy, with synth bass, distortion, and feedback, it spirals along on its own powerful trajectory, finally reaching the heavens in a fragmented diffusion of broken sounds. Shake Me Down starts slowly but builds into a heavy indie anthem, the main pulse suddenly interspersed with brighter, melodic moments reflecting its central conceit; sunlight breaking through dark clouds. 2024 compresses a variety of different motifs in its opening few seconds before speeding to attack velocity and erupting into a retro punk ballad with occasional use of reverb and chorus to punctuate vocal accent points. Sell Yourself builds on the previous couple of tracks, the thrash-punk dynamics concentrated into a two-minute gut punch. 

Rubber Ball slows things down, a fascinating mix of jangly acoustic guitar, strings, plinky keyboards, and operatic samples. Right Before My Eyes, has overtones of classic US college-rock with distinctly left of the dial leanings, but presents a sense of commitment and authenticity lacking from many similar homages. Around My Head cranks things up a notch again whilst retaining strong musical intent, like a strange offspring of the Pixies and Ride, the needle swaying between both poles but mostly to the former. Sabretooth Tiger is another punk explosion, guitars and drums driving things forward, with siren-like wails, breakdowns, and compressed vocals. Expressive and dynamic, it offers an unsteady balance of chaos and control. 

Japanese Buffalo is a demented rock and roller, sounding in places like an unhinged version of the 50s doo-wop classic Earth Angel. At just under eight minutes, album closer Flow is an interesting journey, expansive and emotive it shifts through different ideas, its first half a pseudo-folk jam of sorts, with a shuffling, swelling rhythmic pattern, whilst the jangly guitars and plinky keys make a return. Also featuring reversed guitar samples and background vocal retorts, the outcome might have been a bit messy but instead it’s a pleasingly melodic refrain. The second half is a reprise of Right Before My Eyes which, in this slightly pared down and reimagined state, accentuates its intrinsic charms.

If the past two albums demonstrate a band vying to find their sound, then 2013’s Melophobia (the title means ‘fear of music’) can be considered something of a transition or inflection point. Yes, there are still elements we’ve heard before, but this is a different, more cohesive beast and indicates a move away from some of the noisier, brasher, and less controlled aspects of their music. With Melophobia, Cage the Elephant seem to begin to understand not only what it is they want to achieve, but also how they can realise these new ideas. As a result, their output becomes more measured, refined and (not in any negative sense) professional. I suppose any band that continues long enough reaches a similar point, their membership, range of influences and technical abilities finally coalescing around a more definitive and singular vision to lead the way forward. 

It also raises an interesting question as to where the boundaries between rock and pop music lie, or whether such lines even exist at all. I can appreciate that, for most bands, being categorised one way or the other can be very unpalatable. What is art, after all? And what is music? Is it simply a combination of different organised sounds (or no sounds in the famous example of John Cage) as some may argue? And what are sounds if not vibrations? I’m sure that few musicians would like to be described as ‘vibrators’! Anyway, the intent behind the increasingly heavy-handed and strained point I’m trying to make is that Melophobia could be described as the album where Cage the Elephant become more, let’s say, mainstream. Again, it’s another poor adjective with pejorative overtones that I wouldn’t want to apply that way. But, if this is indeed the case, would that also make the band more poppy than rocky? Cue excited fan outrage…

Let’s consider the evidence. Melophobia’s opening track is Spiderhead, a banging piano chord structure and pounding drums propelling the music forward. The guitars remain familiar and recognisably Elephant-ine but they are more measured. Yes, the lyrics may be somewhat unconventional (“…spiders in my head…”) but vocal delivery is more classically melodic. Even the intermittent accompanying whoops are harmonious (more pop “woo”s than punk “waa”s) forming natural bridges between the verse and chorus. Come a Little Closer continues in a similar vein, the guitar peaks underpinned by more subtle electric piano, the drums driven yet tight, especially as they build. Telescope feels reflective and reminiscent of The Flaming Lips, particularly the vocals which have a Wayne Coyne tinge, while synths and strings swell and stir in the background.  

It’s Just Forever features heavy, fuzzy guitars but also female guest vocals (from Alison Mosshart) to create an interesting new energy for the band’s sound. We have a piano breakdown towards the end and some screams, but they’re never overpowering and work in context. Take It or Leave It shimmies along on a (faux bosa nova?) beat punctuated with rhythmic elements during the verses, such as bass and key stabs, while the chorus ventures back into more classic rock/pop territory. Both Halo (track six) and Black Widow (track seven) continue to play with interesting verse/chorus loud/quiet dynamics, the latter featuring horns and building into an especially effective toe-tapper. Hypocrite also dips into the horn section and rides along juddery beats, opening up during the choruses. Teeth is faster paced, representing a bit of a return to their earlier, punkier sorties but without becoming overwhelming, its final third becoming a spoken word poem over more rugged and ragged musical tones, the drums slowing and carried under, interspersed with more horns like a twisted jazz-funk jam. Closing track, Cigarette Daydreams, harks back to Right Before My Eyes, an indie-infused anthem, simultaneously sweet and melancholy. Recalling stolen moments of teenage heartbreak it’s wonderfully beautiful, and strangely affecting. 

Which brings us back to Cage the Elephant’s fourth album and my initial entry to the band. As Pink Floyd once said, “Isn’t this where we came in?” 

Tell Me I’m Pretty was released in 2015. At this point in their history the band had undergone a small line-up change. Lead guitarist Lincoln Parrish left the band, with rhythm guitarist Brad Shultz assuming these duties. At the same time, lead singer Matt Shultz began to have more of an influence on the band’s videos and imagery. Not only would this help align their respective visual and audio outputs, capturing aspects of their wider creative expression, but the introduction of strong symbolic themes and iconography would also become increasingly illustrative of how the band presented itself to the world; as something unique, distinct, and separate from their peers. 

Tell Me I’m Pretty builds upon the progress made with Melophobia and, again, contains ten songs. The first track, Cry Baby, sounds like a mix of new and different influences, including some psychedelic touches that remind me of the band Temples. It’s an interesting place for the album to start and these first impressions help to draw a distinction between previous albums. This fresh energy filters into track two, Mess Around, the hint of 60s feel-good vibes infusing both songs and suggesting a commonality, each a companion piece to the other. Track three, Sweetie Little Jean, has a solid sense of narrative and introduces some sonic touches that have continued to feature in Cage the Elephant songs, such as the falsetto flourishes, and quieter bridging passages where reflective pauses can breathe. 

In reference to the last track, and just to clarify matters, it should be noted that the importance of storytelling to Cage the Elephant, both in terms of lyrical content and musical accompaniment, is ably demonstrated across their output but becomes more prominent from Melophobia onwards. By the time we reach Tell Me I’m Pretty these skills have been honed to impressive levels, and Too Late to Say Goodbye (the album’s fourth track) exemplifies this, the individual component parts all weaving together to create a mini masterpiece. We get a real sense of drama, the lyrics poetic, the vocal delivery sensitive and honest, the music tight, measured and controlled, the song swells, ebbs, and flows, washing over the listener in wondrous waves. 

Similarly, the combination of sound and vision as part of the band’s wider storytelling aims might be best expressed in the next two offerings (Cold Cold Cold, and Trouble) and I’d urge anyone to watch the videos. As previously mentioned, these were my first introduction to Cage the Elephant and the reason I began to explore their music further. They are both striking and arresting in their own way, filled with strange, dark imagery and occult references, they disturb and intrigue in equal measure. Of course, without sufficiently expressive music these videos would simply remain interesting curios. Thankfully, the songs are incredible. 

Cold Cold Cold is a real stomper, the opening bars of guitar and drums lull the listener into a false sense of safety, the vocals and tambourine playful and beguiling. But then the chorus kicks in and we’re away, a sense of urgency underpinning the mood as things ramp up in the final third, thick fuzz guitar wailing in the mix towards the climax. Trouble, on the other hand, is a troubadour’s redemptive ballad, an emotion-filled anthem with a chorus to die for. Be warned, a single listen is enough to have it bouncing inside your head for hours! Few songs are so instantly infectious. The Alejandro Jodorowsky style cinematics (think El Topo) are an additional kicker.

How Are You True is a beautiful ode to the pain of being human, a warm loving embrace for anyone who’s ever felt heartache, loneliness, or suffering. Stick this on if you’re feeling low. You’re not alone. That’s Right is a feel-good number that sounds like Tornado by the Telstars, the spirit of Joe Meek captured and updated for a modern audience. Punchin’ Bag is a song of empowerment with a nod to glam-rock Ziggy-era Bowie, a tale of the worm who turned and confronted their abusers. Portuguese Knife Fight is the last track on the album. Raw, dirty, and sinewy, it reeks of sweat and poor life choices, like a seedy nightspot in hot, humid climes. It’s evocative, suggestive and forms a stimulating bookend.

In 2017, Nick Bockrath and Matthan Minster joined the band, giving Cage the Elephant its current line-up and it was as a six-piece that their most recent album, Social Cues, was recorded and released in 2019. This increased roster is reflected in the new musical landscapes being forged. Not only do the band have a bigger sound (simply as a direct result of membership numbers) but the revised formation has also enabled further stylistic choices and sonic refinement. What this effectively means is that Cage the Elephant can more fully realise their musical ideas in ways that were not previously available. It also means that Social Cues could be considered the closest representation of the band’s true creative intent to date.

So, what’s it all about? First track, Broken Boy, commences with brooding bass and pad synths which rise to meet a cacophony of dissonant crashes, this intro interrupted by a tight drum fill before the song begins proper. A metronomic rhythm pulls us along, wailing guitars reflect the treated vocals, the lyrics speaking of alienation and abandonment. It’s full of energy, a musical exclamation mark to open proceedings, and finished in under three minutes. Social Cues (so far, the band’s only title track) follows, the plucked synth sound reminiscent of Ashes to Ashes, the lyrics representing Matt’s views on the dislocation and disassociation caused by fame, an elegy to those who never survived it. Despite the relatively dark subject matter, it’s a cracking tune.

Track three is Black Madonna, a more traditional love ballad though one touched by sadness and longing, such as a broken relationship or unrequited feelings. I’d previously suggested Beck’s influence on a previous song (Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked) and he makes an appearance on the next track, Night Running, which has a distinctly electro feel to it, the use of saturated reverb in the background creating a swirling, almost kaleidoscopic and hypnotic swing. This collaboration is a match made in heaven and the results speak for themselves. Skin and Bones is a more redemptive and introspective offering, its narrative forming something of a counterpoint to Broken Boy. I particularly like the use of synth sweeps in the bridges.

Track six, Ready to Let Go, is, in my opinion, one of the album standouts. A very personal song, the compelling lyrics record Matt’s fractured relationship with this wife. It has a power and confidence in its delivery and a rhythmic stride which drives everything along, perhaps because of its obviously emotional content. In many ways it reminds me of Trouble. Its video is also…interesting, containing strong imagery which is at times unsettling. I’ll let viewers decide for themselves. Chronologically, I think it’s also the first showing of Matt’s latex bodysuit, an artefact which is also present in the video for Night Running. 

Which segues nicely into House of Glass. If I’d previously described Night Running former as having electronic undertones, then House of Glass manages to capture similar feelings despite having little in the way of obviously synthesized sounds – which is an impressive feat to achieve. Both benefit from strong visual choices in their respective videos. The use of different guitar sounds to effectively punctuate the song is also impressive and is probably its key feature. They build to a very a pleasing crescendo. At two and half minutes it’s also the shortest track on the album but definitely doesn’t suffer as a result.

Love’s the Only Way is a quiet, dreamy interlude, where expressive vocals can take centre stage, supported by a sympathetic string and guitar arrangement and a wash of background effects. The War is Over builds on some of the sentiments of the previous track (the power of love) but does so in a more traditional fashion. In some ways it could be considered amongst the bands most pop-influenced songs, but don’t let that suggestion put you off. Dance Dance, as the name suggests, has an infectious beat, and efficient use of different components like backwards guitars and organ which help to elevate it above the ordinary. What I’m Becoming is another reflective moment, a heart-felt apology to a mistreated partner, the returning string sections especially resonant within the mix and lending the song a more soulful character.

If Broken Boy and Skin and Bones do form part of a shared narrative (a notion I’m happy to offer for further deliberation) then Tokyo Smoke would be the final instalment in this transgressive three-ages-of-man trilogy. This is another personal favourite of mine; its structure and the interplay of different sonic elements is extraordinary and Cage the Elephant craft it into a mini epic. Everything builds to the final third, a climax of drum breaks, guitars and vocals, the lyrics amongst the best on the album. It has an electricity and immediacy that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Amazing stuff!

Tokyo Smoke would have been a fitting place to close things on most albums. Instead, Cage the Elephant offer us the actual final track, Goodbye. This is a breathtakingly delicate and beautiful finale, a sublime creation of ephemeral tones, at once personal yet universal in scope and reach. The vocals are breathy and close in the ear, the accompaniment subdued, and subtle, simple piano keys supported by drawn and plucked strings while other elements are introduced sparingly to aid the overall composition. 

In my introductory text, I’d noted the benefits of diving into a band’s back catalogue, that it allows one to assess an act’s musical development and to consider our own reaction to their output. With regards to the former point, Goodbye raises an obvious and stark contrast to In One Ear. It may be difficult to believe that these vastly different songs were ever created by the same band and this variance clearly demonstrates the lengthy musical distance which Cage the Elephant have travelled and the significant changes they’ve undergone. 

As to the latter point, and as this article attests, I’m happy to confirm that I’ve been won over by the band’s creativity and energy. They possess a musicality, lyricism and character which differentiate them from the crowd. Since their inception, they’ve made a plethora of immensely popular and finely crafted songs which excite, inspire, console, and soothe. 

I’ve yet to acquire their live album, Unpeeled, which was released in 2017. (Quick note for existing afficionados – I am aware that 2012’s Live from the Vic in Chicago also exists, but I believe this is only available in digital download format.) However, I have watched some of their live performances on YouTube and they seem to have a very strong stage presence, engaging their audiences and providing a great showcase of their talents. From what I’ve seen, Matt appears to be an especially frenetic performer, tearing around the stage as he writhes and contorts with wanton abandon. I’d love to see them live and look to forward to the next opportunity.

In the meantime, the question arises; could Cage the Elephant be your next favourite band? I’d certainly recommend you give them a try. As with most things in life, you just never know and, at the end of the day, what’s the worst that could happen?

About the Author

John Foster works in the public sector and writes in his spare time. For anyone interested, his book Musical Notes is available on Amazon.

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