Before “New Age Norms 1,” I was unfamiliar with indie rock group Cold War Kids. Their bold image suggested that they would offer some hard-hitting, inspired rock music for the modern day. Unfortunately their newest batch of songs is painfully underwhelming. The best tracks sound like they were written by other bands and most of the lyrics feel weak and hollow for a group that’s trying to seem rough-and-tumble.
In sound, this album is best described as split between the slow piano ballads of Ed Sheeran and One Direction, and the pop rock stylings of Maroon 5 and Tame Impala. Simply put, the former is ear death. When they’re playing rock, the side that lines up more with the experimental image they’re pushing alongside the album title, it’s decent. But that doesn’t make it original. Here’s the origin of that sound: a bunch of bands heard that guitar riff on Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 hit “Take Me Out” and realized, “Dude, we could make a career out of this.” Cold War Kids (who formed in 2004) must have loved that same riff, because it’s all over this album. Let’s face it — if the music makes you dance, it’s a success to at least some degree, and a bluesy, disco backbeat does make Cold War Kids’ songs very danceable. But we should expect a little more from rock and roll, a genre based in pushing boundaries and expressing complex emotions.
The dance tracks “Complainer,” “Fine Fine Fine,” “Waiting For Your Love” and “Dirt in my Eyes” will find their place on alt-party playlists. The band obviously respects the bass guitar, and its use here feels good. It rumbles dutifully through all these tracks, putting a pep in your step.
The standout track on the album is “Fine Fine Fine” for its brave absurdity. It begins as a normal track about being happy to grow old. The track reaches its chorus, and amid claps and hollers, frontman and California native Nathan Willet breaks out in an unmistakable country twang, “Yeah, I’m fine, fine, fine!” Are Cold War Kids trying to cross over onto the country charts? The case of Lil Nas X goes to show that it wouldn’t be a bad business decision. One can just imagine Willet singing this tune live, moseying around on stage in his 10-gallon hat and Warby Parkers.
The rest of the tracks are lyrically ridiculous. Cold War Kids play the nice guy on this album, a confusing companion to their hard image. They stress that they aren’t your typical bad boys on “Waiting for Your Love”: “I’m not that macho tough kinda man / I want you for your intelligence.” Of course, the rest of the song is about him and how he’s searching for her, a hypocritical shift of focus that paints him as rather self-absorbed. Their single “4th of July” is about having a pool party. In a pointed line, they tell us, “Don’t be critical / Only bring good vibes.” The rest of the song is similarly abstract and general. For a band called Cold War Kids to write a song about Independence Day and take no political stance seems like wasted potential. It could have just as easily been called “Spring Break,” or “Leif Erikson Day.” As it stands, it feels like this missed opportunity reveals a gimmicky undercurrent to the creative choices of the band.
Other songs discuss fairly unexciting and unoriginal problems for a rock band, summed up as: “I am on tour and think you’re hot, but I have a girlfriend and adultery is a sin,” “I broke up with you very nicely, but you gossiped about me, so I will turn the other cheek” and “You have problems, so I will forgive you for them.” Compelling stuff.
Under all their posturing as bold and experimental, Cold War Kids could honestly pass for a Christian rock band. In the middle of complaining about girls on social media, “Complainer” has a line that goes, “Are you down to get spiritual?” It feels like they keep their religious references subtle so they can maintain their status as a hardened rock band, but it just makes those references feel more out of place. Rock can overlap with religion, but those instances require earnest commitment on the part of the band. Cold War Kids appear like they want to cross over somewhat into that realm, but they don’t want to give up some of the qualities of pure rock, leaving them with a product that doesn’t succeed very much either way.
If Cold War Kids wants to inhabit this Christ-rocker sphere, they should go all out. Perhaps they could look to Kanye West’s recent work for guidance. “New Age Norms II” should be a gospel record; at least then it would have a clear identity that it could be confident in. For now, the original “New Age Norms 1” suffers from an image and tonal crisis that puts the band short of the core hard rock image they’re sticking to and suggests that they would be better suited diving head-first into another genre entirely.
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