Four albums down, and still it seems that Cold War Kids are somewhat unsure of themselves. ‘Hang Me Out To Dry’ and ‘We Used To Vacation’ announced a band of promise back in 2006, but those two tracks now feel at odds with the wrapped-in-cotton wool aesthetic that has been woven together in the years removed since. Their’s is something of a patchwork identity, stitched together by playing it safe and tweaking ever-so-slightly to follow trends. We’ve had the intriguing debut, the shaky sophomore effort, the oh-god-they’re-trying-to-be-a-stadium-band-now disaster of album number three and now an effort that serves as grim confirmation that the Californian quartet have run out of things to say. Wholly unoriginal and relentlessly dull, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is a record of many problems, but its chief failings lie front and centre.
There’s a notable difference between wistful and whining. One can be irritating, certainly, but skill and delivery provide the platform with which to elevate. The other often translates as mere noise. Charm goes a long way, and while it’s admirable that frontman Nathan Willett proudly wears his heart on his sleeve, there’s only so much incessant warbling one can take. For a time, Willett’s vocal histrionics stood as his band’s confident signature. Now, they’re the only distinguishing factor barely setting them apart from a glut of identikit acts, some of whom are currently achieving the kind of huge success that Cold War Kids seem desperate to emulate.
Perhaps mindful of this, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts often drags the listener kicking and screaming into the same troubling territory expertly mined for considerable profit by the likes of Foster The People and fun. Take the one-two punch (and it is very much to the gut) of ‘Bottled Affection’ and ‘Jailbirds’ that arrives midway through. Sickly sweet and smugly saccharine all at once, both simply amble about, ticking boxes and embracing tired clichés – weak handclaps, stop-start drum marches, heard-it-all-before piano lines and trite vocal moments where everything turns introspective as the music stalls just long enough before The Big Finish sweeps into action. Of the two, the former barely even qualifies as a song but nonetheless provides a cute guessing game as to which equally derivative American TV show will inevitably employ it during the closing montage of a suitably angst-ridden episode. Content to drown in basic sentiment and rote lyrics, Willett drags everything down around him. His choices, like almost all of the record, feel like something of a missed opportunity. Attempts to mask darkness with joviality come off clumsy and for a band that thrives on hooks, there’s a curious lack throughout.
The only real signs of life are found on ‘Miracle Mile’, the album’s opening assault. Of course, it cribs from the playbook of others (in this case rivalling anything The Killers have done in recent years) but at least has the courtesy to constantly drive forward and engage. In isolation, it’s a great three minutes, laced with energy, but nothing more than a false dawn. When all is said and done, three interesting minutes out of 35 is nothing to write home about.