It’s been twelve years since Cold War Kids burst onto the indie rock scene with their debut album Robbers & Cowards, a record stuffed with statement harmonies, bluesy piano riffs, and some truly luminous moments. Over the next five albums, the Californian band found both fans and detractors, hovering on the fringes of mainstream status, helped along by a tour with Death Cab for Cutie in 2009. After the brilliance of second offering Loyalty & Loyalty, however, fans charted a noticeable departure in personality.
Of the original four members, only two remain; lead singer Nathan Willett, and bassist Matt Maust. Departing members Matt Aviero and Jonnie Russell, it seemed, took the band’s gritty blues-rock identity with them. Nowhere was this more evident than on their 2015 single ‘First’. The track immediately shot to the top of the charts, and was featured in a host of movie trailers. It felt like a hollow, Imagine Dragons-style anthem, made to be sang out in an arena you paid over $100 to enter, waving your iPhone at the dots on the screen. Despite mixed reviews, however, it propelled Cold War Kids to a higher level of fame.
And so 2017 finds Cold War Kids with a new album and three new members- most noticeably a fresh drummer in Joe Plummer. Unsurprisingly, as the first album made with Capitol Records, LA Divine a 14 track, 44-minute-long exercise in commercial pop-rock. From the first, Moby-flavoured chords of ‘Love Is Mystical’, it’s clear Cold War Kids have relinquished any remnant of alternative edge. In place of targeted, thoughtful storytelling is a vague tribute to the power of love; harmless, pleasant lyrics that fail to make a real emotional impression. As an introduction to LA Divine, it’s fun, but not exactly inspiring.
The rest of the album is similar. ‘Restless’ feels like a less catchy ‘First’, complete with handclaps and syncopated beats that almost, but not quite, work. Willett’s voice sounds strained and distant, wiped of texture in the falsetto bridge. ‘Open Up The Heavens’ follows the same structure musically, but is unfortunately set apart from the rest by Willet characterising himself as a “camouflage flamingo” in a faux-Artic Monkeys cool guy drawl. “Cars/boats/airplanes,” Willett intones, “I’m going insane.” At that point in the record, it’s not hard to agree.
There are suggestions of what Cold War Kids used to be, however. In ‘Can We Hold On ?’ the slower tempo and more considered lyrics combine to make a ballad that works. ‘Luck Down’, arguably the best and most nostalgic track on the record, is simple and punchy; a throwback to Cold War Kids’ earlier albums. It’s a stronger offering lyrically as well, with Willet’s voice sounding confident and more comfortable as he growls “the rising sun/it burns before it shines.” When the band abandons attempts at trite inspirational anthems, their newer commercial formula isn’t half bad.
Sadly, as the three unnecessary interludes prove, that probably won’t happen. ‘Wilshire Protest’ is particularly misguided, as Willett tries his hand at slam poetry and ends up sounding like a cross between a doomsday prepper and something an angst-ridden teenager might scrawl on a bathroom wall. Choice lines include “there’s a war inside my head/I’m surrendering to weakness” and “we are divided by false gods.”
All in all, LA Divine isn’t a terrible record. It’s just that Cold War Kids is capable of much better, as proven by their track record of bold, effective albums. It’s entirely possible for a band to be commercially popular and produce interesting, good music. For Cold War Kids, who once created a powerful impact with their records, LA Divine is disappointingly inoffensive.