Neon Pill by Cage the Elephant

4 mins read

Grade: C

Cage the Elephant released their sixth studio album, Neon Pill, last Friday. It’s been five years since the Kentucky-based alt-rock band released their last album, Social Cues, and, in Neon Pill, they’ve tried to differentiate themselves from the sound of their previous albums. Their attempt, though, veers more towards pop than anything experimental—like a more formulaic and less original version of past albums Melophobia, Tell Me I’m Pretty, and Social Cues.

The 90s alt and grunge influences of Thank You Happy Birthday and their self-titled album, Cage the Elephant are still visible throughout the album, but Neon Pill is undoubtedly much more pop. Inspiration on these earlier albums sometimes gets a bit too close to copyright infringement—despite lead singer Matt Shultz’s ironic renouncing of the title of being an “antisocial anarchist that sounds like so and so”—straying too far from this influence, though, has left Neon Pill with some catchy beats and a few okay songs, but nothing that really stands out.

Some great lyrics could have saved the album, and it does touch on some interesting themes, but most of the songs ultimately lack depth and instead resort to superficial cliches.

“Rainbow” is the project’s biggest commercial hit, and while it is undeniably very catchy, being an earworm doesn’t make a song good. The heavy synth use is interesting at first, but gets annoying after a while, especially when accompanied by the song’s cheesy chorus: “You lift me up when I get down / Right ’round, got me floating like a rainbow.”

The album’s title track is a bit more instrumentally interesting, with synth that doesn’t dominate as much as it does in “Rainbow” and instead compliments the central drum beat. However, the song sounds a lot more like a PR statement than any sort of real insight into Shultz’s experiences. The lyrics “It’s a hit and run, oh no / Double-crossеd by a neon pill / Like a loaded gun, my lovе / I lost control of the wheel / Double-crossed by a neon pill” seem to be a reference to Shultz’s arrest after bringing two loaded guns into a Manhattan hotel and his subsequent hospitalization. Shultz has since shared that he’d been slipping into psychosis due to a reaction to the medication he’d been taking—the reason he had been paranoid and carrying the guns. The song is pretty catchy but comes across as a disingenuous response to the controversy.  Shultz seems to be relaying what happened without adding much of a window into his thought process, or even any insight into his lack thereof.

“Out Loud” offers a break from the full-force production, drum-heavy, upbeat songs that dominate the rest of the album. Shultz, accompanied solely by simple piano music, sings about his and his brother, guitarist Brad Shultz’s relationship with their father, who recently passed away. He looks back on a fight with his father and laments spending so much of his limited time with him fighting and focusing too solely on his career. He sings, “Chasing down a dream / Like a shadow in the breeze / From a thousand miles away / Wish you were still in front of me.” The song sounds a lot like their 2019 track, “Love’s the Only Way,” but fails to match its instrumental uniqueness. While the simple piano is undoubtedly very effective in emphasizing the heartbreaking lyrics of the song, I wish Cage the Elephant had done something more unique and suited to their strengths—they’ve proven they can still convey a poignant message very well in this way before.

The songs on the second half of the album are much less pop than those on the first half, drawing more influence from other 2010s indie bands. “Ball and Chain” is one of the better songs on the album. Shultz’s at times very deadpan delivery on the track, paired with the beat backing these lyrics, which heavily relies on unconventional percussions, are reminiscent of the late ‘90s band CAKE. Shultz seems to again sing about his experience with psychosis, this time with slightly more interesting lyrics. Shultz recounts feeling completely out of control, singing, “I was lost in fabrication / The finish line was fixed.” While “Neon Pill” has gotten more attention, “Ball and Chain” is also catchy, but a bit more unique. 

“Good Time” was one of the first singles Cage the Elephant released in anticipation of the new record. While the production isn’t particularly outstanding—like “Rainbow,” the song is a bit too over-reliant on synth—it’s more lyrically interesting than most other songs on the album. Shultz starts by listing off a series of psychedelic images before repeating “Everybody had a good time,” the weariness in his voice increasing each time. Shultz seems to be reflecting on how the pressure to always please has left him with a false sense of happiness and pushed him into a struggle with substance abuse.

For a band seeking to leave behind their earlier influences, it’s ironic that “Silent Picture” ends up sounding so much like the newer work of the ‘90s bands that Cage the Elephant has always been heavily inspired by. However, it does make for the best song on the album—Cage the Elephant has always been good at drawing inspiration from these bands. The lyrics themselves aren’t anything particularly unique, but the overall theme of the song is heartbreaking, as Shultz describes abandoning a relationship because he struggled to seek help when struggling with depression. He sings, “I don’t wanna talk about it / I don’t wanna know if you’re there / I don’t wanna think about it / I just want the world to disappеar / Take it out on me, turn your back on me.”

Overall, the album isn’t bad—and it’s still worth a listen—but I can’t really think of a reason I would relisten to this album when it’s so similar to Cage the Elephant’s much better albums of the past.

Cleo is a senior in her third year of journalism. She enjoys writing about issues impacting the M-A community, particularly environmental issues. She is also on the M-A cross-country and track teams.

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