by Philip Costache
“There’s this massive hole in our culture where rock-n-roll used to be. We wanted to make some music that carried the same recklessness, energy and color and pay homage to a lot of the bands we cut our teeth on.” — Matthew Schultz
Cage the Elephant have always been a band who openly cannibalize and synthesize ideas from the past. They are branded a sort of anachronism: a contemporary ensemble with a predisposition for alternative/indie-rock, hip-hop, and punk of yore. By now, Cage the Elephant have established themselves as alt-rock revivalists and simultaneously confirmed their signature sound. It was with great anticipation I awaited “Tell Me I’m Pretty.”
Producer Jay Joyce, who had worked side-by-side with the group on all their previous records, was replaced by The Black Keys and The Arcs mastermind Dan Auerbach. Auerbach’s involvement demarcates a clear distinction between the Cage of now and the Cage of ere. On this record, they unrestrainedly deferred to his obscure musical tastes, ultimately sounding too much like the Black Keys circa 2010-2011 and The Arcs.
While designing “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” Cage the Elephant and Auerbach deliberately shunned heaviness and complexity. This simplified formula encloses the fuzzy, eerie, broodingly sentimental songs in a polished, radio-friendly case. Seven out of the ten songs are below the four minute mark, just palatable to those with ADD and anyone who couldn’t endure another second. Although “Cry Baby” is superior to the single ”Mess Around”; because “Cry Baby” is less straightforward, “Mess Around” ,which is a decent, if devoid of longevity pop song, was chosen to be the hook that pulls us in. Arguably, their best songs are located on the first half of the album. Along with “Mess Around” and “Cry Baby”, “Too Late to Say Good Bye” reveals Cage’s strong penchant for user-friendly and well-sculpted melody and atmosphere. “Too Late to Say Goodbye’s” lyrics tragically portray Bony and Clyde’s star-crossed love affair as seen through Bonny’s eyes. The accompanying music creates a gloomy mist through which Bonny doesn’t realize her tormenting, woeful folly until it’s too late — truly one of their best! The second half of the album is not completely without hope. “Trouble” recaptures the brilliance of singles such as “Cigarette Daydream” and “Come a Little Closer.” Matt Schultz’s sense of angst and foreboding are as authentically poignant as ever: a man beleaguered by infinite trouble hopes to find salvation in love; or is love itself the culprit, the one responsible for his distress?
Whenever artists opt for a new musical platform, even if the outcome isn’t well received, their attempt to reroute and surprise us and themselves is nevertheless admirable. In one of the webisodes promoting “Tell Me I’m Pretty”, Matt Schultz states that virtually all the songs were done in one take. They effectively strived for rawness and oversimplification. Alas, the possibility of further challenging themselves was deliberately lost in the process.
Tell Me I’m Pretty track listing:
- Cry Baby
- Mess Around
- Sweetie Little Jean
- Too Late To Say Goodbye
- Cold Cold Cold
- How Are You True
- That’s Right
- Punchin’ Bag
- Portuguese Knife Fight