It feels like just yesterday that I started listening to Cold War Kids with their debut album Robbers and Cowards. I remember I bought it from the Virgin Store at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida. I fell in love with the bluesy, gospel jangle of the whole album, with Nathan Willett’s haunting voice bringing soul to the whole listening experience.
However, that was more than half a decade ago, and things have changed. I’m near graduating university, that Virgin Store is now a giant bowling alley, and Cold War Kids have put a nearly 180 degree spin on their newest record, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts.
The album opens up with “Miracle Mile,” a bouncy, piano-heavy pop song. This song also kind of displays the big problem I have with this album: the amount of reverb. In their early efforts, only the guitar was pretty heavily reverbed, but that added to the jangle and old-guitar-string blues aesthetic they were going for. They increased the reverb on the guitar, and literally everything else. Willett has such a great and haunting voice, and the echo of the effects kind of dulls its shine.
“Lost That Easy” is back to some of the band’s older roots, with a good amount of sustained vocals and pretty cool-sounding riffs. It also heavily shows off the use of a keyboard instead of the traditional piano, which is another departure for the band. This continues to “Loner Phase,” which sounds nearly like a dance song you’d hear in a smoke-filled room full of drunken sorority girls.
“Fear & Trembling” is a great departure from the so far overall pop of the record, and it really goes back to a heavy gospel feel. The guitar is simple, and the drums are repetitive but driving. The same continues with “Tuxedos,” which uses a very simple but effective blues progression as well as minimalistic drums and even some horns.
Then we get back to the not so great with “Bottled Affection.” While I like the lyrics, such as “I’m not the same kid, I grew up/Didn’t I? Or did I get stuck?/You get older, it gets worse,” it’s another club song. Generally it’s just kind of overproduced.
“Jailbirds” is next, and it is the album’s first single. One of my favorite parts about this is the heavy feature of the strange guitar solo, which used to be a staple of the band but has kind of disappeared, even from the last record.
Like most Cold War Kids albums, many of their heavily blues-based songs are kind of back-ended to the finale. “Water & Power,” “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,” and “Bitter Poem” are all bluesy ballads that really show off Willett’s voice and lyrical capabilities, but not much else.
I am, unfortunately, pretty conflicted about this album. I personally love Cold War Kids, and have done since they first came out. In my eyes, they can’t do much wrong. However, this album is just sort of too different. Not generally in a bad way; it’s kind of like how the Beach Boys made Pet Sounds. There are grasps of the old stuff, but then there is also this entirely new direction. I think the band was trying to make up for Mine Is Yours, which was much more indie-rock than anything they’ve done.
But too many things are missing: the frantic guitar solos, the pounding piano, the unfiltered voice, and even the tambourine. Most of what made them distinct is now gone, most likely in an appeal to a general audience. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. For now, grab a bottle of scotch and go listen to their first two albums.