Cage the Elephant apparently got some albums from Cake and the Pixies for their birthday. This gaggle of Kentucky boys are back with their sophomore album, titled “Thank You Happy Birthday”, and seem to have ditched the simple rootsyness that permeated their first album in favor of a modern punk sound, keeping to the garage but turning up the volume to make fans pogo instead of sway. It’s a change that makes an attempt to evolve their music and give it a new bite, but as much as it succeeds in providing their audience with something new to chew on, it also fails to deliver the same consistency and brain-trappingly catchy numbers that their eponymous album delivered in spades. No “Back Against the Wall”s or “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”s here— that southern-sounding saunter is gone and the slide guitar is put away— but that doesn’t mean the album is devoid of fun listening, or that the old Cage the Elephant has disappeared into the distortion of their amps. “Thank You Happy Birthday” is just the kind of album that grows on you after a few listens. It may take time to really get used to the new direction, or rather, directions, that the band experiments with in their sophomore effort.
The name of the game for this album is “trial and error”. Throughout the record, a search is happening: a search for a new identity, a new sound, a new direction. The tracks, however, individually have a tendency to be hit or miss. Some are single-worthy (such as “2024” and “Shake Me Down”) and some are more forgettable, just hazes of distortion and growls that seem to blend into the whole with few remarkable qualities (ex. “Japanese Buffalo,” “Sabertooth Tiger,” “Sell Yourself”). They’re fine filler songs, but because the album isn’t a piece that needs to be listened to as a whole unit, you might ask the question “why listen to those tracks?” Well, maybe it’s not worth it if you’re only interested in more prominent songs, but everything on “Thank You Happy Birthday” sounds like a map of where the band is artistically exploring, and for fans of the band or people just fascinated by the creative process, it fleshes out the big picture of what Cage the Elephant is doing with their music. Not everyone is going to want to listen to the songs between the singles, but frankly on this album if you’re not interested in fillings then it’s not really worth taking a listen.
However, no one can say that Cage the Elephant ever delivers less than energetic songs. With “Thank You Happy Birthday,” the band takes the concert-ready buzz of first album tracks like “In One Ear” and push them further, creating vibrant punk rock explosions at their brightest (“2024”) and a cacophonies of sarcastic moans, agonized screams and steely guitars at their darkest (“Indy Kidz”). One track that stands out the most is “Rubber Ball,” the only song even vaguely calm that moves with the midtempo waltz-y bounce of its namesake. It sticks out like a sore thumb among songs that bite and scratch and howl out their parts. It’s a refreshing thing to have in the middle of the musical squall, but seems so much to be a black sheep that the change from the previous track “Sell Yourself” is jarring. What really makes this album a double-edged sword is that, though with the band’s approach to expanding their sound provides lots of different music for different tastes, it also leaves each individual with little in the way of likable tracks, so you don’t get much bang for your buck.
I can’t say that this album is for everybody. “Thank You Happy Birthday” is not masterfully compelling but neither is it atrociously horrible; it’s a chimera of sounds that, though they make a curious musical Frankenstein, leave behind a lingering dissatisfaction by the time the album is through.