Unique album structure may redeem lacking release
After breaking into the mainstream back in 2014 with their massive single “First,” Cold War Kids found themselves in an interesting position of power, having influence and respect in both the indie community and Top 40’s radio. With their most recent album release, New Age Norms, the band is risking their legacy and the payoff, if there is any, is still many months away.
Over the last decade, music production and publication have evolved and artists are now releasing quality music at a rapid rate. Cold War Kids have taken this cue and rather than releasing one standard length LP, New Age Norms will be a trilogy with each volume comprised of no more than eight tracks. This break in form is what will hopefully save this release from being completely forgettable and derivative.
Don’t be mistaken, Cold War Kids can and do write incredibly catchy made-for-radio songs like the opener, “Complainer.” Complete with funk influence, synthesized horns and an irresistible dance beat, there’s no doubt this single will get airtime on every major alternative station. Add in the uplifting lyricism with lines like, “you say you want to change this world/ don’t sit around and complain about it,” and this song is an anthem in the making.
It’s songs like “4th of July” and “Calm Your Nerves” that seem to ramble on and get lost. With only eight songs, there isn’t room for a single track to fail to leave an impression. It isn’t that these songs are bad. In fact, they were well-written and performed with musical proficiency. The band has an innate pop sensibility, extending through every single release, which is both their saving grace and ultimate downfall.
While their ability to craft music made for the masses is what ultimately pushed Cold War Kids into mainstream success, it is also what makes New Age Norms a mediocre release. Throughout the record, the band experiments with genre, flip-flopping from ‘70s R&B to funk to country. Unfortunately, the aspects of each genre that should be celebrated and leaned into are watered down and sometimes fully erased by the band’s pop-driven approach.
The album’s hidden gem, and ultimately the only song that doesn’t fall victim to being stripped down for accessibility’s sake, is “Fine Fine Fine.” Kicking off with their signature percussion and vocalist Nathan Willett allowing himself to indulge in a little twang, this track is the by far most original and exciting. Instead of repeating the tired cliché of holding onto lost youth, Willett sings of an opposing and surprising sentiment with lyrics like, “why would anyone want to stay young?/ no nostalgia, I’m glad it’s done.”
Speaking of Willett, Cold War Kids’ not-so-secret weapon has always been his vocal delivery, however, the control and execution he exhibits on New Age Norms are remarkable. From the way his voice delicately bounces on top of the instrumentation on “Waiting for Your Love,” to his inconceivable falsetto on “Dirt in my Eyes,” Willett truly is the heart and soul of Cold War Kids.
Both ambitious and authentic, this first volume of New Age Norms falls short, but Cold War Kids shouldn’t be crucified just yet. For one, as jumbled and unthematic as this release appears, it is still a solid collection of songs. Each one has the ability to stand on its own. The trouble only comes in when they are lumped together and listeners look for a cohesive line of thought when there isn’t one.
Perhaps viewing New Age Norms as an album is the root of the problem, because really, at the end of the day, it’s not a complete work. There are still two subsequent volumes waiting to be released. Once they’re out, the conversation around New Age Norms will likely be entirely different and hopefully, much more encouraging.