When a blonde haired, sunglasses-wearing Matt Shultz shambled onto Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 2008, he was clearly the show’s 'wildcard' guest – it took him five minutes to renounce his Christian upbringing, and by the end he was standing on the desk performing an a cappella version of “Shiny Happy People” with teammate Stephen Fry. At the time, Shultz’s band Cage the Elephant were developing a reputation for their lawless antics, bursting onto the scene with premium advert fodder ‘Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked’ and a rebellious debut album opening with the refrain “people talkin’ shit, they can kiss the back of my hand”.
Although this hostility and destructive energy wasn’t just an image, it cast Cage the Elephant off into something of a critical no-mans land – talk of their admirable confidence and skill was always swamped by accusations of imitation, their idolatry of the likes of Nirvana and Pixies so clear that many critics just couldn’t get on board. Their second release Thank You Happy Birthday did little to stem the tide, drawing even further from the staple Eighties and Nineties punk that their debut dabbled in, and by album three people stopped expecting anything game-changing from Cage the Elephant.
It’s a bit of a shame to be honest – Shultz is an endearingly obnoxious character and a genuinely great songwriter, those first couple of records a nice little gateway drug into the music of Cage the Elephant’s heroes. They might have been a bit juvenile, but they cultivated in me a little soft spot that’s never really faded – I always saw the potential in Cage the Elephant to make something a bit a bit more distinctive.
Satisfyingly then, they did exactly that on Melophobia, one of 2013’s best rock records. The songs were assured, organic and delightfully weird, dealing with far more approachable subject matter than just "people talking shit” – isolation, creative dissatisfaction and identity issues all rear their head, cuts like ‘Telescope’ and ‘Cigarette Daydreams’ channelling the understated intelligence of any good Vampire Weekend track. Despite being far less brash, it was their most defiant record to date – it seems nobody was aware of the criticism more than the band themselves, their admirable choice to dispel the doubt and chase something purer one that paid huge dividends. It might have been a difficult record to make, but it was undoubtedly their best, the definition of a hidden gem, and a huge reason to be excited about Cage the Elephant again.
Their latest effort Tell Me I’m Pretty succeeds for many of the same reasons. Cage the Elephant continue to bring the heat singles-wise with 'Mess Around' and 'Trouble', the latter a wickedly left-field dirge that sees Shultz hush up his usually manic delivery. Slower cuts like the gorgeous 'How Are You True' prove that Melophobia’s restraint is here to stay, the livelier moments moving with the humble, rootsy swagger of a band like White Denim or, funnily enough, The Black Keys, who’s lead man Dan Auerbach oversees production here. Given that, Tell Me I’m Pretty is a warmer sounding record than their last three, the more abrasive, eccentric approach to production on Melophobia traded in for the typical fuzzy, layered mesh of a late-era Black Keys record.
Other than the production, Tell Me I’m Pretty sits very much in the same league as Melophobia – a confident, eclectic rock record with heaps of personality and charm. It smacks of a band who, having finally found their identity, are starting to explore new territory with remarkable confidence. If there was any justice, this record would be waking the masses back up to Cage the Elephant, but popularity a stubborn beast, so let me be blunt – you really have no excuse not to check this record out. Let this band surprise you.
8Andrew Harrison's Score