Album Review: Cage the Elephant's 'Thank You Happy Birthday'
“Thank You Happy Birthday” opens with a howl of discontent as lead singer Matt Shultz puts us on warning that all is not right in his world. In fuzzy first track, “Always Something,” lovers cheat, friends lie and trouble waits right around the corner, ready to attack unsuspecting passersby.
“TYHB” is Cage The Elephant’s successor to its self-titled first album,which contained three alternative chart smashes: “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” “Back Against the Wall” and “In One Ear.” The new set builds on the strengths displayed on the group’s bow and expands their musical palette in a nice show of growth.
A sense of ominous dread pervades much of the Bowling Green, Ky.’s group’s second album, not only because of the lyrical content but also because of the sonic landscape created by Lincoln Parish’s Dick Dale-type guitar licks, Jared Champion’s precise, often military-style drumming and Schultz’s anguished delivery.
The opening salvo of pain has abated somewhat by the fourth song—first single and alternative hit “Shake Me Down”; the sun has come out again, albeit briefly. From there, the album morphs into a number of different styles. Musically, the album is all over the place, from aggro rock of “Indy Kidz” to the slacker roll of “Aberdeen” and shimmery, country leanings of album closer “Shiver.” In lesser hands, that would just seem like a lack of focus, and maybe it is, but CTE handles all the styles represented here with admirable command. So many acts making pop music stick to a formula or don’t play outside of the lines too much; CTE feels no such strictures.
The Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo vets channel Cake on more than on occasion, but no more so than on tracks like “Always Something,” when Schultz breaks into a John McCrea-like monotoned spoken vocal. But there’s more going on here than that. For all the aggression of some of the tracks, CTE has a solid pop, melodic sensibility that is downright Weezer-like on the delightfully power poppy “Right Before My Eyes.” and very homey on the largely acoustic “Shiver.”
There’s an appealing lack of polish and rawness to much of the set that serves the band well, although it could have pulled back on the distortion on the White Stripe-ish, loosey-goosey “Sabertooth Tiger.” But all in all, it looks like Cage the Elephant has largely avoided sophomore slump.