What does a band do when their most successful album to date generates just as much inner turmoil as it does critical acclaim? In the case of Cage the Elephant and their 2013 release, Melophobia, the answer is simple – blow things up. After a run of three insatiably frenetic exercises in pseudo-punk rock anxiety, a spectacular reputation as live performers, major label ascension with RCA, and an eventual Grammy nomination for Melophobia, Cage the Elephant had reached an impasse.
The extensive touring and massively unanticipated (yet much deserved) reception of Melophobia led to friction within the band. Guitarist Brad Schultz called the experience "a living hell,” so much so, that it culminated with lead guitarist Lincoln Parrish’s eventual departure in December of 2013. Parrish, who had been a part of Cage the Elephant since age 16 in 2006, had not foreseen the rapid growth and success of the group, stating that his ultimate goal was to “be a producer before anything else.” Nick Bockarth, filled Parrish’s void for the remaining Melophobia tour stops supporting The Black Keys and Foals, which stretched well into 2014.
During the Kentucky rockers’ run with The Black Keys, Schultz and Black Keys lead man/Nashville super-producer Dan Auerbach tossed around ideas for some new Cage songs, and long story short, the rock n’ roll salons led to a collaborative relationship between the two which ultimately led to the creation of this fourth studio record, Tell Me I’m Pretty.
Opener “Cry Baby” is a jolt to the system; cleaner and brighter than former Cage openers, the twinges of Brit-pop throw TMIP into uncharted territory. "Trouble" is a deceptively wistful tale of woe spun over breezy woos just begging to be sung along to, complete with a lyrical nod to their magnum opus with "You know what they say / Yeah the wicked get no rest," while the other single “Mess Around” pairs fuzzy riffs with infectious poppy hooks, perfectly wrapping up the band's dirtier feel in a tight 3 minute package. Auerbach himself even provides the guitar solo, though it would be unfair to automatically dismiss this effort as Black Keys fodder.
While Auerbach’s association with TMIP may trigger an automatic assumption that the album as a whole would be filled with Black Keys-isms, that assumption overlooks how Cage the Elephant’s greatest mores and themes are present throughout the album, though ever-evolving. From Matt Schultz’s familiar wailing on “Sweetie Little Jean" to the stark Rolling Stones-esque rollercoaster that is “Cold Cold Cold," it heavily mixes their brand of manic bravado with sixties rock n’ roll pop whimsy.
TMIP artfully toes the line between alternative and radio-ready, being much more direct and polished than records past, though this is more a testament to the maturation of Matt Schultz’s lyrical and melodic presence, rather than the involvement of a ubiquitous rock personality. Where previous Auerbach collaborations did fall victim to this (Lana Del Rey), TMIP comes off as entirely a product of the group’s effort.
Tell Me I’m Pretty is also arguably Cage the Elephant’s best recorded album to date, and though it does have variances from what’s become their “sound,” there’s really no reason to fault the band for wanting to expand their sonic catalog. Should they not want to alter the sound and design of previous efforts that left the group frictional and dejected? What Cage the Elephant has created on Tell Me I'm Pretty is an album that will inevitably strengthen the group’s future efforts, rather than being shackled to a particular vibe or genre. It may not shatter with the same chaotic dynamism along the way, but it does manage to be, well, pretty.