Cage the Elephant released their fourth album “Tell Me I’m Pretty” on Dec. 18, 2015, and naturally I have only just recently gotten around to listening it. It is the first album that the Kentucky-based group has put out since their 2013 work “Melophobia.” Like it’s predecessor, it puts forth 10 tracks and has confusing if not vaguely disquieting cover art.
In an article in Rolling Stone, reviewer Jon Dolan praised the band’s latest work, comparing it to “watching old footage of Sandy Koufax or Bill Russell in crisp hi-def with modern camera angles.” Dolan sees the album as bringing something new to ’60s retro rock half a century later, and that Cage the Elephant provides a look back at this kind of sound with a “sense of dread that’s perfect for our own dislocated, paranoid times.” While I agree with Dolan that a sense of dread is present in this work, perhaps this inherent paranoia is not a result of the modern world, but a fear that “Tell Me I’m Pretty” is a step back for Cage the Elephant.
Just speaking in terms of sound, the tracks from “Tell Me I’m Pretty” are different from the grungy, back-of-the-garage punk style of “Melophobia.” Though the music is still guitar-based, the tracks are much less noisy, at times only consisting of singer Matt Shultz’s voice and muted percussion. This difference between the two works can best be shown by looking at the openers from each album.
“Spiderhead,” the opening track from “Melophobia,” is unapologetically grungy, evidenced by the hook bellowing, “Spiders in my head, spiders in my mind,” or the fullness of the staticky guitars.
“Tell Me I’m Pretty”’s opener “Cry Baby” could not be more different, with a calm organized timbre to the guitars and baseline. Interestingly enough, the lyrical themes of “Cry Baby” could easily fit under “Spiderhead”’s sound. Shultz sings “Kick, scream, fight / hold on with all your might / you’re going to die,” but the serene mood of the music comes off at odds with this message. Though one might think this adds nuance, the juxtaposition seems a bit forced and unconvincing.
“Cry Baby” does have an interesting sound to it, even if it doesn’t line up with the lyrics, including a wonderful rhythm change at the end combined with a lovely guitar line. When I first heard this part, it reminded me of the way The Black Keys play bridges. I later found out that the album was produced by Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach. I realized that what I was liking from “Cry Baby” wasn’t Cage the Elephant.
Luckily, “Cry Baby” isn’t the strongest song on the album–”Mess Around” and “Cold Cold Cold” are better. But as I have listened to them more, I’ve come to realize it is because they build on and hearken back to “Melophobia,” which of course was the album I adored. Both of these tracks return to the energetic thumpers providing what Rolling Stone Called “a dirty crunch.” But I realize that what I liked was not new, so what was new on this album?
The poster child for the new Cage the Elephant sound, (that isn’t “Melophobia” part 2 or The Black Keys’ lamer little brother) can be found in the clear hit of the album “Trouble.”
“Trouble” represents a shift to a melodic setup, where the guitars don’t take over the sound, but weave into Shultz’s lyrics to form an almost folky song. Don’t be fooled by the catchiness of “Trouble,” because the melody and lyrics are definitely a negative development for the band.
Shultz sings about a lover pulling him through a sea of troubles. If that sounds cliched, that’s because it definitely is. A closer look at the other more stomachable lyrics shows a line that at best could be described as self-referential, and at worst masturbatory. Quoting the band’s first hit, Shultz almost whispers, “You know what they say, yeah, the wicked get no rest.” It seems lyrical chestnuts from the wider world about trouble were not overused enough, so they had to return to their old first hit, and act like it’s a real saying, even though they made it up.
After “Trouble,” the remaining four songs on “Tell Me I’m Pretty” are almost not worth a mention at all, rendering the already unbalanced album extremely top-heavy to boot. “Punchin’ Bag” has a groovy beat, but is clearly cut and pasted from a Black Keys song. “How Are You True,” the slow song with supposedly meaningful lyrics, manages to repeat it’s title and quote Coldplay in the span of two lines: “Hey, how are you true? / The light will guide you home, yes it will.”
If “Melophobia” musically and lyrically invokes the fragmentation and paranoia of our modern world, “Tell Me I’m Pretty” seeks to find a way to calmly move beyond this apocalypse. The way that the music seeks to do this is through melody and calming sound, the lyrics do so by discussing a lover. The problem with the album is that what’s good is derivative, and what’s new isn’t good. Don’t give in to the imperative album title, and tell it the way it is: this work isn’t pretty.