Cold War Kids have never been a band particularly adored by music buffs. They’ve been accused of bandwagon-jumping left, right and centre for their (admittedly far from unique) bluesy-indie-rock sound, sidelined for being a “religious” band and even labelled “drunken Jeff Buckley karaoke” by coveted tastemakers Pitchfork in their review of the band’s second album.
While it’s true that Nathan Willett’s voice can be a little jarring on first listen, especially in some of the band’s earlier material, the same could be, and has been said of, say, Tom Waits, Thom Yorke, Bob Dylan… Not that I’m for a moment suggesting Cold War Kids should be discussed under the same terms as any of those. I’m a little defensive, here, not delusional.
Nevertheless the band have have, in their previous three-album span, released a plethora of pretty decent, lyrically dense, melody driven indie-rock, which, if it happens to hit you at the right time, can be hard not to fall for. Admittedly, the songs that go by this description appeared far more frequently towards the beginning of the band’s career - Mine Is Yours, the band’s third release, wasn’t their best effort – but, to get to the point, they have enough interesting material to have given this writer the inclination to spend at least the time it takes to write 600 words on their new release.
First impressions are important, and letting Dear Miss Lonelyhearts play out for the first time, notebook at the ready, I tried to feel out my gut reaction to the songs, without too much considered analytical thought. Here’s what I scribbled: “This sounds like The Killers”. Not damning criticism, but not high praise either, and certainly not what I was expecting. Continuing, I listened to the album through a few more times, trying to consider all information available, what I know of their previous albums, and think more about the lyrical content and instrumentation. I came up with the following conclusion: “This sounds a lot like the Killers”.
This is, of course, harsh and hyperbolic. There were at least three hundred more words of notes which didn’t compare Dear Miss Lonelyhearts to the arena-indie faded stars, but it’s an undeniable truth that in Cold War Kids’ apparent veer towards anthemic throw-your-arms-up-and-emote indie, and away from their earlier actually-emotionally driven, rough-edges bluesy-ness, they’ve gone down a path very well trodden. Even more so than the one they were occupying before.
Opener ‘Miracle Mile’ is initially arresting and propulsive, but struggles to go anywhere not immediately predictable. Characterised by a dangerously contagious refrain (“Come up for air! Come up for air! Come up!”) it’s not unlikely you’ll be hearing this coming loudly and tunelessly from the lungs of a crowd of barely standing teenagers at a festival come summer, but, nevertheless the sounds are tight and the melodies well written and pleasing. There’s certainly little to complain about here.
The album has much higher points too. ‘Fear and Trembling’ sees a slower side to the band’s sound, sliding in with foregrounded percussion, rich horn sounds, more striking, raw vocals and backed by a (again noticeably Killers-esque) gospel choir accompaniment. Flourishing into a more and more frantic spiral of guitar, horns, drums and keys, the song eventually fades out, feeling much like the Cold War Kids of Loyalty to Loyalty.
Towards the end of the album, things start to get a bit darker. The album’s title track, ‘Dear Miss Lonelyhearts’, powers, ballad-like, around the idea that “the good times never come”, while ‘Bitter Poem’, which brings it all to an end, feels almost like Meatloaf in its over-dramatic colourfully produced emoting.
It’s an odd end to an album which starts with promise, but never quite seems to hit what it’s aiming for. Overall, the band seem to have lost a lot of the bluesy quality found so strongly in a lot of their earlier material, and often, replaced it with somewhat ill-fitting electronics; the intro of ‘Lost That Easy’ comes out feeling something akin to darker Two Door Cinema Club. Cold War Kids’ fourth release is a solid attempt, and will no doubt pick up some ardent fans. But Cold War Kids have been making solid attempts since their first release in 2006, and comparing their 2013 effort with that album, there’s very little marked improvement in anything, along with, in my view at least, a slight decline in sincerity. Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is more produced, it’s more arena friendly, more singalong, but there seems to be a loss of feeling here. It’s an album that washes over, vying for attention, but never quite succeeds in grabbing it, and never quite living up to what Cold War Kids could be.