The current state of indie-rock in the US makes the proposition of a new Cold War Kids album seem a lot less attractive. Right now, the gulf between charting ‘alternative’ music and what can actually, doubtlessly be called an alternative is huge, and with the number of acts in the latter sliding directly to the former for a quick payout, it’s hard not to be skeptical sometimes when releases like this come down the pipeline. Even with Cold War Kids, a band who have become more poppy over the years but in a far more tasteful way than most thanks to some prominent soul influences, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue like that. Bands have made much greater leaps in shorter periods of time, and especially in a case like this where said band hasn’t had all that much of a fire lit under them in some time, at least on a wider scale, the allure of defaulting to simple, quick alt-pop can be too tempting to ignore.
And while New Age Norms 1 is arguably a more streamlined release, pushing the pop side even further forward and condensing itself down to just eight tracks, this is far from a shill move, or at least one that makes itself obvious. This feels like an album spurned by creative desire rather than anything else, and given that Cold War Kids are as proficient with the sound as they are, it makes for a listen that isn’t too groundbreaking or resonant on any deeper level, but goes down smoothly all the same. That might sound like some pretty faint praise all things considered, but there’s at least a synergy between each factor here that a lot of acts in similar circles fail to bring to even one, and as a rather lightweight album on the whole, it stops it sliding too deeply into disposability for a nice change of pace.
It certainly helps that sonically, New Age Norms 1 isn’t shooting too far beyond what Cold War Kids are capable of reaching, though there’s really not a sense of complacency here. The underlying indie-rock foundation remains as that for the most part, bolstered and dressed up by the lighter shades of pop and blue-eyed soul for a much slicker presentation. Admittedly, that combined with some rustling production can make piano-led tracks Beyond The Pale and Calm Your Nerves feel stodgier than any album aiming to be this lean should allow for, but that’s largely combatted by some truly great pop structuring and composition that Cold War Kids ride with ease. The flashy glam-rock aesthetic and strutting pianos and bass of Complainer and Dirt In My Eyes have a vibe to them that’s almost akin to the Scissor Sisters in embrace of camp and pop agelessness, and Nathan Willet’s range is miles sleeker and more expressive than so many indie-rock frontmen in his lane. The hooks mightn’t truly explode in the way that some might expect, but there’s a stickiness there regardless, and that gives the best moments on New Age Norms 1 a staying power that can be a surprising rarity among alternative scenes like the ones Cold War Kids inhabit.
On the other hand though, it’s not like there’s much deeper here than that rock-solid melodic core, as it’s really not that far removed from a lot of similar music in terms of the thematic grounds in which it settles itself. It’s the sort of populist, radio-friendly fare that most would come to expect, and that does dampen some of the potentially longer-lasting qualities this album could have. Take a track like Complainer for instance, which shows glimpses of its criticisms towards social apathy and those who turn a blind eye to the ills around them, but it’s all eased back enough to avoid becoming too provocative. And to some degree, it’s not like that’s a terrible decision, especially when Cold War Kids’ most prescient strengths lie in pushing their melodies to the fore, and therefore doing what they can to remain unobstructed – or simply playing to what fits them the best like on Waiting For Your Love – does have some amount of merit. Even if that can be seen as making an already slight album that bit more anonymous within the scene upon first glance, Cold War Kids arguably do enough on their own to keep afloat just fine, and even if a bit more detail wouldn’t have gone amiss, it’s hard to call that a failing on the band’s part.
That might seem like awarding this albums concessions that, on deeper analysis, it hasn’t quite earned, but reducing everything down to that one point would be to ignore the sort of mainstream-ready alternative album that’s doing things right. There’s no hackneyed trendiness here, nor is there a desire to slough off every foundational asset; instead, Cold War Kids have taken what they’re already successful at, and applied it in a way that’s moving towards a poppier zone, but feels natural in doing so. As well as a few real standout moments that are just begging to become indie-rock hits, New Age Norms 1 takes a fairly tight pool of principals and turns them into something with a lot of charm and likability. If there’s more like this coming as the title alludes to, that can only be a good thing, as Cold War Kids have struck upon something really good here.
For fans of: The Shins, Broken Bells, Sunset Sons
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘New Age Norms 1’ by Cold War Kids is released on 1st November on AWAL.