Social Cues is the fifth studio album by the popular rock band Cage the Elephant.
Peaking at number twenty-one on Billboard charts, this album is arguably one of their best, having been released in 2019 and falling into the indie-rock genre. The album heavily details the feelings of the bands lead singer and guitarist Matt Shultz during and after his divorce from his wife of four years as well as the negative consequences of fame. The songs on this album range in emotion but are all lyrically complex.
Here, I will be analyzing each song and their meanings. All of these are my personal interpretations.
As the opening track on the album, “Broken Boy” strikes the listener with its heavy beat and bold lyrics. This song, to me, seems like an explanation of Mark’s beginnings and how he grew up, which is why it is a great way to open an album of this theme. The very first line stating “I was born on the wrong side of the train tracks” immediately explains to the listener that Mark’s childhood was not easy and that he has a dark past. The lyrics then go on to describe the adversity he faced because of his childhood. Mark is clearly questioning why he had to go through all of these things (“tell me why I’m forced to live in this skin”) and why he feels so different from those around him (“I’m an alien”). The chorus is almost mocking the listener in the same way Mark was assumedly mocked as a child. It repeats “broken boy, how does it feel?” This song really allows the listener to resonate with Mark, with the music creating an angry feeling and the lyrics perfectly describing the emotion of being forced into a life you do not want to live. This song is a perfect opening to the album, as it shows us why Mark may have such troubles not only in his marriage, but in his life and it gives us a closer look as to how he got to the point he is at. Overall, this song gives the listener the opportunity to fully relate to the rest of the album, as if they had lived it themselves.
The second track keeps up the high energy of the first, but with a much different tone. This song details the struggles Mark has with fame. Discussing how difficult it is to keep up the energy that people expect and to live with the pressure of it all without turning to vices. But, at the same time how nobody has sympathy (“at least you’re on the radio”). Our lead singer also recognizes how the rockstar lifestyle is a benefit as well (“the best die young, immortalized”) and how it is a struggle not to give in. Once again, this ties into the main theme of the album by giving the listener a peak into Mark’s brain. He is completely struggling with fame and his mental state, while also trying to balance a private personal life, which probably further leads to the downfall of his marriage.
“Black Madonna” continues with a similar theme as “Social Cues,” with a funkier sound, showing another negative side of fame, paranoia. It begins by describing a strong love and a long distance relationship, which is most likely the consequence of the narrator’s fame. As they separate, the paranoia begins to sink in and arguments start. The narrator continuously states “call me when you’re ready to be real” showing how they think the person on the other side of the conversation is being fake. The song also outlines the narrator’s fear of being lied to by their partner (“you say that you’re at home, alone right now, but in the background there’s a muffled laugh”). The term “Black Madonna” itself refers to paintings of the Virgin Mary, the repetition of “Black Madonna, my hallelujah,” the listener is shown that although the relationship is beginning to struggle, the narrator loves their partner and wants things to work. They are essentially calling their partner their savior, their blessed woman. Tying into the theme of Mark’s relationship once again, this profiles how the end of the relationship began, how it is tearing him apart, and how his fame may have played a role in that.
This fourth track juxtaposes the first three in its sound. This track, featuring singer-songwriter Beck, is much calmer and cooler. The sound on this song is quite different from the average cage the elephant sound and is more experimental for them, similar to how Mark is experimenting with the idea of divorcing his wife. The deeper meaning here, though, is about using partying and drugs to run from your problems, hence the name “Night Running.” However, the narrator knows that no matter how hard he tries, he can not escape his problems. The lyric “I’m on the final run, falling in and out of love,” tells the listener that he knows this is his final run, he can no longer escape the obvious problems in his marriage and life.
Skin and Bones
The fifth track brings the listener back to the problem at hand. Describing a feeling of emptiness, our narrator tells the listener how he feels hes been “running for so long” (perhaps a callback to “Night Running”) that he feels there is nothing left of him anymore. Fame and the trials of his relationship have stripped him of everything he used to be and now he is nothing but “skin and bones.” There is another callback here to “Broken Boy” with the lyric “left here feeling like an alien” which tell us that no matter how much of himself he has lost, or how rich and famous he becomes, that childhood feeling of being out of place can never go away. “Skin and Bones” also alludes to the idea of death, repeatedly discussing the idea of being guided by a light. It is as if the narrator is contemplating living or dying and whether or not life is worth fighting for. With loss all around him, how will he move forward?
Ready to Let Go
The sixth track answers my previous question. Telling the story of Mark and his wife’s trip to Pompeii, in which the contemplation of getting a divorce became reality. The narrator has accepted his fate saying, “no sense trying to change it,” and he is “ready to let go.” The symbolism of ash and fire is used several times, not only as a reference to Pompeii, but as a description of the state of their relationship. Ash represents the fact that it is stagnant, “underneath this bed of ashes” and fire represents the destruction, “ima strike these matches.” The listener is uplifted by a message of moving forward, while the narrator is no longer struggling with the weight of making a decision.
House of Glass
CTE’s seventh track takes us back to themes of fame and the pain that comes with it. The narrator begins the song by acknowledging that he put himself in this position and how he is tired of the life he his living. Through the chorus the lines, “its an illusion, this admiration, of mutilation” repeat over and over. This is a glaring look at how fame is an illusion and fans (the admirers) are just mutilating their idols with their expectations. The chorus also repeats the line “the house is glass,” representing how fragile fame is. The expectations of these admirers not being met, can easily shatter the image of a celebrity, our narrator can not handle this pressure. Overall, this track shows us more of the internal struggle that Mark is dealing with due to his fame.
Love’s The Only Way
The Eighth track is a completely different tone and speed than the rest o the album so far. Heartbreaking, yet hopeful our narrator talks about how “love’s the only way” meaning that there is nothing good without love. Although he may have recently lost his love, he is hopeful that life is full of it. He discusses how nothing in the world happens because of men, it all happens because of love, “never made the wind blow, never made a heart grow, never made a dove take flight.” The lyrics go on to tell the listener how even though looking out for yourself is all the rage, it will never be as good as the love from someone else. This track is possibly Mark reflecting on his divorce, the love he has had in his life, and the kind of love he hopes to find and give.
The War Is Over
This ninth track is the beginning of a resolution for our narrator. He is finally realizing that he can not run from all of his problems. He has spent his entire life running from his feelings, forcing himself to be independent, but now he understands that he cannot escape love, love always wins the war (“the war is over, loves already won.”) Now, he is looking forward and opening himself up to new things and feelings, no longer using drugs and partying to run from things like we saw in “Night Running.” This song is Mark coming to terms with everything he’s been through and starting to be comfortable with his emotions and who he is.
The tenth track is exactly what it claims to be, a song about dancing. It is another night out song (once again similar to “Night Running”) but instead of being underlined by themes of running from your problems, it’s about a happy night out. This serves as a break from the consecutively heavy emotional songs that come before and after this one. At the same time, it shows the listener another aspect of partying and fame that Mark and the band live through.
What I’m Becoming
The listener is quickly sucked back into the narrator’s emotional turmoil in the eleventh track. The narrator is struggling with getting over this destructive breakup and is blaming himself for it happening. He is apologizing for who he is becoming and almost regretting his decision. Searching for an answer, the narrator reminisces on the relationship and can not seem to find reason. He refers to his partner with an endearing “honey” and shows how he really is struggling to get over the end of the relationship even though he initiated it. This shows how Mark is truly struggling with his divorce, he feels like he is succumbing to the fame and becoming somebody he never wanted to be. But, it is too late to turn back time and he must accept his fate.
The twelfth track illustrates the inner war of the narrator. It is as if he is fighting with himself and his opposing ideas. He feels he can not trust himself, “my old unfaithful friend” and can’t decide if he should stay inside the lines or think outside of the box. This is an important decision because the eyes of the world are always on him. He also knows he wants to move forward from his break up but he “can’t stop looking back.” This battle is really getting to him, once agains showing the battle of fame and emotion, “my public smile, my double face.” The narrator is fighting with himself so much that the two sides are even fighting over whether or not he should end his life. This is heavily representative of Mark’s inner turmoil. Cage the Elephant is known for extremely flashy shows that fans love, but that also get a lot of criticism in the press. So, it is not surprising that Mark contemplates whether or not he wants to continue doing these outlandish things and is thinking about how it affects his image. Also, this track reminds us how Mark is really struggling to get over his divorce even though he wants to so badly. He simply does not know how to handle this struggle.
The thirteenth and final track is Mark’s absolutely heartbreaking goodbye letter to his wife. It tells the story of how he wanted to fight for their relationship but didn’t think there was any point. He is “paralyzed” by their breakup and doesn’t know how to move on because it all happened so fast. He is destroyed by this breakup, but is finding new hope and a new way to live his life. The bridge seems extremely personal, referencing a lullaby that appears as inside information between the two of them. The bridge also reminds us how Mark feels he is the reason for their breakup and he was “the thorne” in her side. But, in the end, he just wants to tell her how he feels about her one last time before he has to finally say “goodbye.”
Overall this album is an extremely heartbreaking tale of Mark’s divorce.
It is an amazingly told story that can also be leisurely listened to. I have enjoyed this album for a long time and will continue to for much longer.