There have been a lot of attempts to define the raw, passionate sound of Cage the Elephant. They’ve been classified as “alternative,” “garage,” “punk,” “garage punk,” “powerpop”, and more recently, even “glam.” I’ve always just thought of them as “some guys from Kentucky going nuts and losing it onstage.” So given their in-your-face musical history and their penchant for noise, the title of their third album, Melophobia, certainly seems appropriate. (Don’t bother looking it up—melophobia means “fear of music.”)
But listening to the record, the title seems like more of an irony, because the whole thing comes across like a band who is actually trying to be more musical. And while they do a pretty decent job of it, I have to say I’m not sure it was the right move.
I know—I need to unpack that statement. Bear with me.
For a band known for its loud guitars, manic rhythms and the uncomfortable, slightly-below-pitch wails of lead vocalist Matt Schultz, Cage the Elephant really seem to be restraining themselves here. At first, it plays quite well; opening track “Spiderhead” is bouncy, melodic and mature-sounding while keeping a nice level of energy. But then, it becomes more apparent that the band in general, and Schultz in particular, are really restraining themselves. “Come a Little Closer” and “Telescope” venture toward the reflective and sound almost like (gasp!) hipster indie-rock, while “Take It Or Leave It” seems to fluctuate between surf-rock and something reminiscent of disco. And through all this genre-hopping, Schultz’s (more) controlled vocal delivery bespeaks such influences as Bowie, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. It’s as though they are deliberately stretching themselves into new territory, trying to prove they can be a legitimate band of musicians.
It isn’t bad; in fact, it’s quite good, taken on its own. So why am I skeptical of it? Simple: this controlled, more “musical” sound is not what Cage the Elephant fans signed up for. They aren’t here for retro-influenced indie-rock. They’re here for the guys-going-nuts thing. “Ain’t no rest for the wicked.” Remember that? These fans don’t care if they hit every note right; they want the chaos, the noise, the flinging of sweat, the release of energy.
Now, to be sure, there are moments on the record when we have glimpses of that—just enough to prove that the guys haven’t lost their “losing it” vibe. “Teeth” (at least the first half) provides the best example of the sound of the early days, as Shultz wails, “They put me in the hospital, locked me up and threw away the key” before proclaiming “Shut up and dance,” all over a wall-of-chaotic-sound followed by screaming, distorted guitar solos. (The song then descends into a strange-but-interesting jazz-infused vibe with spoken-word poetry over the top.) Other old-school contenders include “Halo,” “Black Widow,” and “It’s Just Forever,” the latter of which features guest vocals by Alison Mosshart of The Kills. But in the context of the whole record, these moments are the exception rather than the rule.
And so, if Melophobia has any personal meaning as an album title, it must be that Cage the Elephant are trying to face their fear of music by diving into musicality. And they prove their point: they can be musical. If this had been their musical direction all along, I think it would stand out as a fan favorite. As it is, I think there will be some die-hard fans who will totally dig this new vibe, and perhaps they’ll even draw some new fans from the indie-rock camp. But those fans who are coming to this album for the purpose of blowing off steam are going to find fewer moments of rock-and-roll satisfaction, and might even walk away scratching their heads in confusion.