Constant reinvention is the name of the game in our current era of rock ‘n’ roll. The chameleon-like postmodernism of David Bowie looms large over a generation of musicians who think nothing of juggling genres and swapping identities album to album and, in some cases, even track to track. Børns jumps from glam rock to R&B-flavored electronica and back again as though it was no biggie. After riding throwback soul to stardom, Alabama Shakes pulled a stunning 180º and embraced futuristic soul instead. Old truisms such as “do one thing, do it well” and “don’t fix what ain’t broken” mean nothing to these artists; they mix and match anything and everything.
No current act better exemplifies these qualities than Cage the Elephant. Eclecticism can’t even begin to explain their knack for genre hopping and abrupt shifts in direction. In 2008, the boys from Bowling Green, Kentucky, rose to fame thanks to their loose and rambunctious garage boogie. They then dove into alt-rock nostalgia on their sophomore effort, Thank You, Happy Birthday, that recalls the Pixies by way of Nirvana. Their third, Melophobia, romps through fields of fuzzy lysergia.
On the newly released Tell Me I’m Pretty, Cage the Elephant once again switch things up. Teaming up with Dan Auerbach, easily the hottest producer in rock, the group weaves a surprisingly delicate mélange of twee-inspired jangle (“Sweetie Little Jean”), baroque pop (“Trouble”) and folk rock (“How Are You True”). The band known for their blistering live shows now comes awash in muted textures and measured introspection. Seriously, the Cage the Elephant from 2008 would never have penned a tune as exceptionally sweet as “That’s Right.”
Enlisting Auerbach’s help in realizing their latest sound was a wise move. The Black Keys frontman is far more than a producer. Working closely with his artists, he becomes counsel, tastemaker and collaborator. His distinctive talent for creating rock that feels both modern and vintage can be heard all over Tell Me I’m Pretty. Though “Cold Cold Cold” and “Mess Around” are thoroughly 21st-century creations, each feature carefully arranged artifacts salvaged from ‘60s rock. Auerbach productions also boast thick, luxuriant sounds into which listeners can sink their ears. It’s a unique sensibility that works especially well on the darkly dreamy “Too Late to Say Goodbye,” one of the record’s very best moments.
The lonely, moody vibe of “Too Late to Say Goodbye” pops up all across Tell Me I’m Pretty. Returning to the aforementioned “Cold Cold Cold,” singer Matt Shultz can be heard chanting, “Doctor, can you help me because something don’t feel right.” The creeping unease certainly helps explain the album’s muted atmosphere. Cage the Elephant have never sounded so exposed and, to be frank, wounded. Lucky for us, the group proves themselves to be just as good at sad and lonesome ballads as they are wild and rocking jams. Tell Me I’m Pretty is yet another winner for the band.