If you randomly plucked one member of Kings of Leon, Counting Crows, My Chemical Romance, Ramones, The Clash, Sex Pistols and Violent Femmes, put them in a room and told them to come up with an album, I think it would probably sound something like Cage the Elephant’s Thank You Happy Birthday.
Manic vocals tumble downhill like a novice skier dropped from a helicopter onto a double black diamond run. Behind him, guitar chaos closes in, a sonic avalanche chewing up the backcountry scenery. All around him are dense, sometimes cryptic ruminations that swing from positive to pensive to downright brooding.
“Around My Head” playfully complains about how a man can’t get the object of his affection out of his thoughts. The song also credits God for initiating the blossoming relationship (“‘Cause God, He told me, He said He’s gonna send me something lovely”).
“Shake Me Down” seems determined to maintain hope instead of moping miserably through life (“In my life I have seen/People walk into the sea/Plagued by constant misery/With their eyes cast down/ … I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun”). Similar sentiments inhabit “2024,” where someone who’s discouraged gets a (possibly metaphorical) message from the future that things will eventually get better. “Rubber Ball” admits to reaping the consequences of a repeated mistake (“Got no self-control/Now I’m back here in line”) but strikes an optimistic stance anyway (“All I got is nothing but a little bit of love/Gonna give it to the people, then they’ll see”). “Always Something” rightly notes that we don’t have as much control over circumstances as we’d like to believe.
“Indy Kidz” criticizes television’s deceptive influence (“I don’t watch TV cause it’s just a box of lies/It makes me want to stick a toothpick in my mind”) and warns against trying to keep up with too-cool trendsetters. Likewise, “Sell Yourself” rebukes someone for allowing himself to be taken advantage of for the sake of money (“So sad to see you torn apart by all your selfish greed”). “Japanese Buffalo” tells another person, “It’s a shame/That your heart turned to stone.” A line on “Shake Me Down” could be interpreted as a rejection of sex without love and commitment (“In my past bittersweet/Found no love between the sheets”) or …
… heard as a lament about not having had sex at all. A similarly amorphous line on “Aberdeen” could also be a sexual allusion (“Saw the flame, tasted sin/You burned me once again”).
Expanding on Murphy’s Law, “Always Something” fatalistically insists that negative circumstances lurk around every corner. Two examples: a hardworking husband who finds his wife in bed with another man, and going from being a Good Samaritan to a murder victim after offering a hitchhiker a ride. “It’s always something, you know it’s always something,” the chorus comments.
A similarly morose outlook permeates “Right Before My Eyes,” on which Cage the Elephant bellows, “Right before my eyes I saw this whole world lose control/ … I fell through the floor, I couldn’t take it anymore/I can’t take this anymore, it breaks my mind.” Ambiguous yet foreboding, the song goes on to say, “Golden needle, names we take in vain/Find it harder to remain/Nothing sacred/Still waiting on that explanation.” Things seem even more hopeless—and violent—when we hear, “Hold her dirty hands over the flames/Getting pleasure from the pain/Softly screaming/The pistol that your raise has spoken.”
“Our parents were very religious.” says lead singer Brad Shultz in a Guitar World interview. “And when Matt [Brad’s brother and rhythm guitar player for the band] and I were young, our dad wouldn’t let us listen to much secular music. The only secular music we were allowed to listen to was stuff like The Beach Boys and Tommy James and the Shondells. Once in a while my dad might throw in some Joe Cocker. But I had to sneak to listen to a tape of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. I’d fall asleep listening to it and my dad would catch me with the tape. He kept tapes like that in a crate in his room. Me and Matt would break in there so often that he started putting a little piece of thread near the bottom of the door jamb. If we walked through the doorway, we’d trip the thread and he’d know we’d been in there.”
Evidence of the Shultz’s self-described religious background does turn up here and there on Thank You Happy Birthday, from recognizing God’s role in bringing the right girl, to more opaque lyrics that perhaps reflect a drift from the faith they were raised in. And that contrast, between upbeat optimism on one hand and morbid fatalism on the other, is what you remember about this Elephant long after the pandemonium fades.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.