by Ryan McDonald
The band Cold War Kids got their name from a trip that Matt Maust, the band’s bassist and one of its founding members, took to Eastern Europe as a teenager.
“There’s this big park in Budapest where they dumped all these statues that had been removed after Communism fell. Now it’s just a place where people can go and have picnics. There’s a playground there. So being in that environment just made the phrase ‘Cold War Kids’ pop into my head,” Maust said in a 2011 interview in Spin Magazine.
The story of the name reveals both the band’s tendencies to mine the past for influences, as well as its ability to pick out uplift amid bleakness or chaos. The single “We Used to Vacation,” from their breakout 2007 album Robbers and Cowards features a stuttering piano groove that echoes Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and also repurposes that song’s line “give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations.” But while the Dylan tune offers its scathing condemnation of politics and hypocrisy at the remove of the second-person singular, “We used to Vacation” is told from the perspective of an alcoholic father. The song ends in a lengthy, lyricless breakdown that lends it an atmosphere of forgiveness and moving on; comments to YouTube versions of the song often come from people who grew up with alcoholic parents or friends, thanking the band for helping them process.
Cold War Kids have the omnivorous, literary flare of band who can’t help but view the world through the art they’ve consumed. The cover of their 2009 EP Behave Yourself contains a drawing of writer Joan Didion with Los Angeles in the background; it was sketched by singer and guitarist Nathan Willet, who told Filter Magazine that Didion had inspired their songwriting about topics as varied as traffic, adoration of celebrity, and wildfires. Their 2013 album Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is a nod to the vaunted 1933 Nathanael West novel, about a newspaper advice columnist who becomes overwhelmed by the flood of depressing inquiries he receives. The album’s single “Miracle Mile” features a driving drum beat and barrelhouse-style keyboards that pairs uneasily with Willet’s vocals, which echo with frustration and anguish; the effect is one of feeling alone while surrounded by a wild party, a situation in which West’s nameless columnist often finds himself.
The band formed in Southern California and emerged from the sprawling “indie” explosion of the mid-aughts, one that shifted the sound of the genre away from stripped-down guitar acts like Strokes and The White Stripes toward a fuller sound that often featured horns, keyboards or synthesizers. Like Arcade Fire and many other acts of that moment, Cold War Kids combined dancy beats with earnest vocals and ambitious themes.
Unlike many acts from the indie boom, however, Cold War Kids are still kicking, and their work retains the ambition that has propelled them through nearly two decades of making music. In the fall 2019, they announced their latest project would be the New Age Norms trilogy, with one album released per year. Unlike most grand projects announced in fall 2019, this one stayed on schedule; the band released New Age Norms 3 last year, and it inevitably seems to reflect changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. The song “Times Have Changed” opens with a lazy guitar riff punctuated by a tweeting synth pulse that suggests an ignored alarm clock; “My house is a mess, the morning has come/I got to get dressed, can’t forget where I’m from,” they sing, an anthem for exiting a life of solo walks and a calendar full of Zoom. The album’s second single, “Wasted All Night,” is a gospel-tinged paean to carousing, but in the band’s introspective style, one less interested in braggadocio than the unchanging facets of human behavior.
“We are still those mammals that are primitive,” Willet told BuzzBands LA in August, “that want very basic things: to be accepted, to live purely in the moment, and to express ourselves.”
Cold War Kids play BeachLife May 13.