Kentucky garage-rock veterans have made a triumphant return with their fifth studio album, hot on the heels of their Grammy-winning fourth LP, Tell Me I’m Pretty, and 2017’s Unpeeled, a double-LP collection of live songs. Social Cues, which released April 19, features lead singer Matt Schultz embracing his inner demons, following the personal losses in the death of two close friends and a divorce from his wife after a seven-year relationship.
Cage found mainstream success on 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. It’s an album colored with tight, bluesy, arena rock; however, it plays it remarkably safe compared to diverse experimentation on their previous works like 2013’s Melophobia and 2011’s Thank You, Happy Birthday. Tell Me I’m Pretty is an enjoyable, albeit occasionally derivative release that feels like a series of afterthoughts from what they did on Melophobia.
Thankfully, Social Cues builds Cage’s established sound while still propeling the group forward with polished and unconventional instrumentation.
After the album’s punching opener, ‘Broken Boy’, the group moves themselves into uncharted territory. On the album’s title track ‘Social Cues’, Schultz exerts an acute awareness of the band’s commercial breakout amid his own deteriorated mental state in a song that seems to be a hybrid balance between something you’d find on David Bowie’s Scary Monsters and MGMT’s underappreciated comeback, Little Dark Age. “I’ll be in the back room, tell me when it’s over / People always say, “Man, at least you’re on the radio,” sings Schultz. Schultz finds little solace in success.
Perhaps most ambitious and out of place song on the LP is the album’s fourth track, ‘Night Running’, which heavily features Beck on a song that moves between glam-rock choruses and a reggae influenced verses, where the two fight for the attention. Beck sings “Killing the moonlight with daylight / I got my X-ray eyes / And I’m feeling so fine,” and Schultz responds “Are we for real, yeah? / Or just pretending? / Will it burn out by the morning?” In an album that delves so deep into Schultz’s personal psyche, Beck’s inclusion on this song feels jarring and unnecessary.
The radio-ready single ‘Ready to Let Go’ is heartbreaking song about Schultz and his then wife Juliette Buch’s fateful trip to Pompeii – a trip where the two ultimately decided they needed a divorce. The song has a punchy sing-along chorus, but feels like something we’ve seen from the group on previous works, and feels caught in the verse/chorus/verse structure that has grown tiresome.
The less inspired tracks ‘Black Madonna’ and ‘Skin and Bones’ are outliers on a album that is otherwise consistent. You’ve got spooky, post-punk guitar licks from guitarist Brad Schultz on ‘Tokyo Smoke’ and ‘House of Glass’ coupled with subdued spoken-word vocals that are biting listens from start to end.
Social Cues’ standout moments come in some of the somber, self-reflective ballads in ‘Love’s the Only Way’ and ‘Goodbye.’ Soft piano and string accompaniment strip Schultz down to his most vulnerable, and there’s ecstatic beauty in songs so directly informed by agony. “You know I tried / But in the end it left me paralyzed / It’s alright / Goodbye, goodbye,” sings a strained Schultz on the album’s closer. Schultz told Rolling Stone that he could only make it through one take – delivering it lying on the studio floor. Thankfully, there’s hope in the darkest of places, as Schultz’s personal downward-spiral helped create the some of the group’s best work since .