With their third studio album, 2011’s Mine is Yours, Cold War Kids had reached a creative peak—or so they thought. Working with producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Norah Jones, Modest Mouse), the Cali-based quartet sharpened and refined their songs, downplaying the messy experimentation of 2008’s Loyalty to Loyalty in favor of a sculpted, massively catchy arena-rock approach, emphasizing the soulful elasticity of Nathan Willett’s massive voice with lyrics focused on romantic turmoil. At the time, it sounded like their commercial breakthrough—their transformation from slightly obscure indie-rockers to confident modern rock veterans. But the critics, baffled and underwhelmed by this sudden stylistic shift, tore the album to shreds.
“There are things critically that I don’t seek out for the most part,” Willett reflects. “At the same time, when the general attitude toward the whole record was the way that it was for that record, I was very aware. Honestly, it was hugely disappointing that the record appeared to be misunderstood or maybe made us think we’d gone in the wrong direction. Whether it was reviews or just reactions to it, it seemed like people didn’t really get beneath the surface of it. We’d put a huge amount of work into it. We were really ambitious and excited about it, and we just felt it wasn’t understood in the way we hoped it would be. I think it had a really big effect on us, and bouncing back from that was really tough.”
From day one, Cold War Kids had always been the same guys: Willett, bassist Matt Maust, drummer Matt Aveiro and guitarist Jonnie Russell—four optimistic kids who met in 2004 at Biola University, a private Christian college in southern California. But three albums later, disillusioned by the widespread negative response toward Mine is Yours, the band wasn’t sure how to follow—or if they should bother following at all. Russell, at least in part to further his education, quit the band, while the remaining members struggled to pick up the pieces.
“We were in the position where we said, ‘We could take this band less seriously and do other things, and let the band be something that is not the thing that dictates our lives.’ There’d been years of our schedules being so reliant on each other and constantly living at the drop of a hat. We had to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to keep this as our baby, as the number one thing in our lives?’ I don’t think [Russell] was ready…or I just don’t think he wanted to keep up at that pace and thought he needed to do other things…It’s hard to kind of run a band flying the flag half-mast. You need to have it all or nothing. But it was mutual, and it was something where we needed him to go so we could just go full-on, and he needed to go so he could do something for himself.”
That artistic and personal turmoil served as the foundation for the fourth Cold War Kids album, the eclectic Dear Miss Lonelyhearts.
“In some ways, [that experience] really defined us,” Willett says, “and it became something where we had to look at each other and say, ‘With the direction of this record, we want to explore things that are not like our first couple records. But is this going to be an uphill thing where people wish they had this older version of us or something?’ And that definitely leaves a mark on that kind of era of our band. In many ways, this record is very much defined by everything we came out of with that record and trying to get ourselves pumped up and not be afraid to make another record that could be very well misunderstood or not appreciated because it’s not like what we started out doing.”
Compared to the sparkling, streamlined surfaces of their previous album, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is noticeably raw and abstract. Produced by new guitarist Dann Gallucci (who’d previously worked for the band as a live engineer), the album is less shackled by the “four guys in a room” sound of their previous work—utilizing synthesizers and drum programming, with piano-led rockers (“Miracle Mile”) and new-wave anthems (“Bottled Affection”) balanced out by starry-eyed ballads and textural atmospherics. With Gallucci’s fresh perspective, the band pushed themselves out of their comfort zone.
“I think he kind of opened us up,” Willett says. “Some things kind of made us uncomfortable. We’d be asking, ‘Does this sound like Cold War Kids?’ And we had to just keep saying, ‘Well, we like it, so let’s do it!’ I think we were liberated with Dann. Him coming into the band—it’s a very different style. It’s funny. In some ways, Jonnie had a very frenetic style, and we had to kind of contain it, and Dann has the kind of style where…when you’re coming at a record from the place where you’re a producer as well as a player, you’re much more aware. When you’re sitting there with a guitar in your hands, you want to play it! You want to put it on the songs whatever and whenever you can. When you’re a producer, you have more of the perspective of, ‘Does this need a guitar?’ You’re listening to the drums, the vocals. I think he’s very deliberate about what the guitar needs to be, and I think that definitely had a big effect on the way the record sounds as a whole. So he’d be like, ‘Instead of putting a guitar there, why don’t we put a keyboard line there?’ Maybe using some synth stuff we wouldn’t have used before.”
“We’ve come to a place where we’re very much a live band,” he continues, “and everything we recorded was very much about four guys in a room. I think, with the last record, we were trying to do more of what we wanted to do: really make the record in the studio and use the studio as an instrument. We had some success with that, but I think with this record, we were able to step back and not just be four guys in the room—all of us kind of listening together and being very careful about what to put there.”
Lyrically, Willett was inspired by Nathanael West’s 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, a black comedy about a depressed, alcoholic newspaper columnist. But instead of simply writing an obvious concept album based on a series of fictional character observations, Willett used the novel as a springboard into his own life and relationships.
“I think with the last record, I spent so much time on the lyrics and thought really hard about them and edited myself kind of a lot,” he says. “And I’m happy with how it turned out, but I definitely wanted to do it differently this time—a more spontaneous, fast writing approach. I think it’s a combination of things we’ve done before: There’s definitely a lot of characters and more situations with concrete things happening, but then it’s also a little abstract as well. I wanted to write the lyrics quickly, so that some of the weirdness of previous records or lines that stick out a little more—I’d let them stay in and be more open to interpretation. That’s something I wanted to be more deliberate about this time around.”
The album’s emotional centerpiece is its closer, the elegantly spacey “Bitter Poem.”
“That song is personal,” Willett says. “It’s about a friend and kind of my struggle with how to help that friend in a way. It’s definitely an important song to me. It’s a combination of personal and some fiction, but it’s a song about and to a friend, and it’s kind of about depression and just ties into the original themes of the record. It comes from the central idea of the title of this novel I read, Miss Lonelyhearts, which is about this advice columnist who is trying to give advice but has this kind of spiritual crisis. And he’s attempting to reply to people’s letters about what they’re going through. I think ‘Bitter Poem’ really embodies that character—somebody who’s seen a friend go through something really hard.”
“The chorus [“I’m out of advice, umbrellas washed away in the rain”], that’s one of my favorite lyrics on the album. When you set something up to protect you—advice and words and ways to encourage each other or prevent each other from struggling with stuff, so often it’s not actually of use in real life circumstances.”
For the first time in a long time, Cold War Kids seem to be following their own advice. They’re making music for themselves again, following their own vulnerable instincts, regardless of who is—or isn’t—listening.