The sophomore album has often been the bane of many bands’ existence. Generally, once a band reaches a large enough audience that allows the members to tour the country like the rock stars they are, they put out an album that has nearly none of the same things that made the kids love them in the first place.
Some examples would be MGMT’s “Congratulations,” Wolfmother’s “Cosmic Egg,” Panic! At The Disco’s “Pretty. Odd.,” the list goes on and on. Cage the Elephant’s new release “Thank You Happy Birthday” falls into this same sophomore slump, but not without a fight.
“Birthday” comes down to mostly a sloppy noise rock album with hints of pop, whereas Cage the Elephant’s previous self-titled album was a perfect blend of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll and the youthful passion that spawned hits such as “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “In One Ear,” These songs were great because they stood in stark contrast to what was being played on mainstream radio. It actually had some soul; it wasn’t the same Chris Daughtry–inspired rock that plagues mainstream music. It was a refreshing taste of what rock ‘n’ roll was always meant to be — people thrashing around wildly with guitars as a way of exercising their personal demons.
With all that said, “Birthday” is not a bad album. It shows glimpses of the same brilliance that made its first album so popular, especially with tracks such as the paranoid opener “Always Something” and the bouncy “2024.” “Aberdeen” is probably the strongest song on the album. It rumbles along displaying the taut ferocity of the first album that has the band pulsing with energy and chafing at the simple pop arrangement. But for every “Shake Me Down” there’s an “Indy Kidz,” for every melodic punk inspired rock ‘n’ roll song there is a spiteful and juvenile middle finger to people who wrote them off as just another new-age rock band.
Throughout the album, Cage the Elephant is trying to prove something, whether to the critics, the label or to themselves. The band seems so concentrated on convincing listeners its previous level of success was no fluke, but in doing so, “Birthday” seems to be lacking the lighthearted fun that was so prevalent in the first album.
The band seems more apt to dissolve into noise and screaming than to work on those golden pop hooks that worked so well in its first release, such as “Back Against the Wall,” a song that doesn’t shy away from its catchiness but instead embraces it and uses it to build to a cathartic finish. It is instead the more basic songs on “Thank You Happy Birthday” that truly stand out, such as “Right Before My Eyes.” This song is constructed simply, without gimmicks or studio trickery, but it feels honest and gets the point across beautifully.
Overall, the release is a mixed bag, but there is still quite a bit of potential embedded in this Kentucky-based band. And although it is doubtful many of these songs will end up as radio singles, many of them should complement the wild stage shows, which is really where the band shines. Cage the Elephant is still a very young band and once the rock stars hit their stride, they could be a truly powerful force to be reckoned with.