Fullerton, California’s Cold War Kids have, by all rights, enjoyed an enviable career as an indie blues-rock turned alternative rock turned mainstream pop-rock act during their 17 years. Lifelong fans might miss the Robbers & Cowards era of the band’s earliest lineup, but Cold War Kids remain an essential live act in their nearly two decades. If it gets them out on the road (as they are this fall, supporting Kings of Leon’s pavilion tour of the United States), then for that reason alone, a new Cold War Kids album is cause for excitement, if not celebration.
New Age Norms 3 is the final piece in a trilogy of mini-albums announced in 2019 and followed up in 2020. These are not the best songs Nathan Willett has written, but he sings the hell out of his work as always. What New Age Norms does best is bring together a cohesion between newest Kids bandmates, David Quon and Matthew Schwartz, who clearly have marked out territory beyond live players amid the growing pains of 2017’s L.A. Divine.
With that “new” band sound, Norms delivers some of the most sonically dense Cold War Kids songs to date. In the case of “Always”, that’s a great thing: layered synths dance around Willett’s scatting ad-libs, and Matt Maust’s basslines are full and booming. Schwartz has finally found his voice, adding a nice texture to the songs, best showcased in the soulful lead single “What You Say”.
The depth in these songs doesn’t always work, but you can’t fault a nearly 20-year-old group for trying something different. “2 Words”, for example, might be the worst Cold War Kids song to date, blending the pop harmonies this band’s been doing since 2011’s Mine Is Yours with spoken-word sing-talking reminiscent of an obvious CWK influence: Tom Waits. It’s a tough shot to swallow.
“Nowhere to Be” is a genuinely resplendent chaser. A ballad as good as any Willett has written, you can almost imagine “how many miles / ‘til we realize / there’s nowhere to be” echoing in the halls of your town’s mid-sized venue, the band coming back to stage one instrument at a time. Similarly, Cold War Kids sign off New Age Norms 3 with another performance-ready bombastic album closer with the theatrical “Wasted All Night”.
Maybe some old fans have checked out, but Cold War Kids show no signs of slowing down. During press for all three of the New Age Norms releases, Willett and Maust have said these are some of their favorite songs they’ve ever made. While they aren’t as memorable as Loyalty to Loyalty’s ambitious lyricism, or as bluesy as Willett’s younger warble used to sound, “I Can’t Walk Away” sounds like some of the most fun the band’s had in a studio since “Royal Blue”, and “Times Have Changed” could have been written by the original line-up.
Groups with as much history as Cold War Kids are in a tough position. Either play it safe and release copies of copies, put your songs in car commercials, occasionally take it on the shoulder from old heads mad album ten sounds different from album one, or take extreme risks to innovate your sound. Inexplicably, Cold War Kids have done both and neither. As a set-piece of three albums, the New Age Norms trilogy does a good job echoing Robbers & Cowards while also bringing more expansive soundscapes into what audiences should expect from a Cold War Kids song.
What’s more, we’re given these tracks in small doses: eight songs across each iteration of New Age Norms instead of a massive 24 marathon setlist, which lowers the stakes. Here’s some new songs, here’s some more new songs, Cold War Kids seem to be saying. That’s pretty generous, and while New Age Norms 3 doesn’t have the best moments in the band’s catalogue, it also doesn’t present itself as a do-or-die statement of purpose for these artists. Like Willett sings, “times have changed / we’re just waking up.” New Age Norms 3 is not a perfect album, but it’s a perfect little thing to wake up with, and I think sometimes that’s good enough for a band that shouldn’t have anything left to prove.