“Honestly, this is the first album where I do have expectations and I would be surprised and disappointed if the record didn’t do well and open doors for us. Being able to tour in Asia, play bigger venues, or record a song with someone like Elvis Costello, is the sort of thing I expect with this album.”
Yes, that is Nathan Willett, frontman of Long Beach-based “soul-punk” outfit Cold War Kids, but not recently. That quote from Clash Magazine refers to their previous release, 2011’s Mine Is Yours, and by as far as hasty internet research reveals, Cold War Kids did not make it to Asia, and only covered Costello, though the hope of playing bigger venues had to be reached in some festival settings. The sense is that Cold War Kids are maintaining a status (high-end second tier?) without really losing nor gaining much in terms of audience. For the band, the question becomes do you bemoan what you have not achieved or be grateful for what you have—even though that gratitude risks complacency?
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts falls into both of these traps, as the album is very much a Cold War Kids-sounding record, not straying from the territory already covered in their previous three LPs. The band could argue their use of electronic textures on the inevitable modern rock hit “Loner Phase” and the R&B-leaning closer “Bitter Poem” are big creative leaps, but they are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them innovations, with the core of each song still indebted to Willett’s soulful, dramatic vocals—walking that tiny line between Timberlake and Levine.
This line is what separates Lonelyhearts from their other work, which had stumbled occasionally to the questionable side of taste, all while revealing much about the band’s place in music. Cold War Kids have never been embraced by indie culture because their sound has never become “cool,” no matter how easy on the ears or how professionally recorded it reads. Cold War Kids have not made that giant leap to Arcade Fire-heights because of an emotional connection that is lacking in even their casual fans. Yes, Willett’s vocals are nothing less than great. But—and this is awful to say—they are too good to extract emotions from, a problem that R&B had typically been criticized as suffering from until recently.
And this is where Dear Miss Lonelyhearts sets off into unknown territory for the listener, and likely, the band. Because of artists like Autre Ne Veut and and Frank Ocean, Cold War Kids find a new relevance on this collection, specifically on slower jams like the title track that allow Willett to sing his heart out and for the audience to actually perceive that heart.
However, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is not the breakthrough into critical acclaim either, hampered by innocuous words and the lack of personality in the arrangements and individual players, Matt Aveiro, Matt Maust and new guy Dann Gallucci. Still, with hook-heavy foot-stompers like “Miracle Mile” and “Bottled Affection,” Asia and amphitheaters and even Elvis Costello seem like attainable heights, with the future suddenly more uncertain than ever, as the standard is raised, and the band desperately needing to take cues from their peers rather than evolve in the same vacuum that has long been nearing full.