17 years. That’s a long time for any band to stick around, much less one named “kids.” The members of Cold War Kids, California’s pop-rock, alt-rock, blues-rock outfit, are now middle-aged men, not children, and they’ve closed out their ninth album, New Age Norms 3. That’s no small achievement. It’s too late to change their appellation, of course, and “Cold War 40-somethings” doesn’t roll off the tongue, so they’ll have to let the record speak for them, which it does: with soul, longing, joy and the same vigor that’s key to their music dating back to Robbers & Cowards.
New Age Norms 3 caps off the trilogy that Cold War Kids started in 2019 with New Age Norms 1 and continued in 2020 with New Age Norms 2, each a chapter in an overarching projected connected loosely through aesthetics and motifs: As the title suggests, the guys have their minds on the ebb and flow of social mores forming in American culture, both over the last few years and since they got their start in 2006. The world looks different now than it did then. For one, we didn’t have to worry about a plague. For another, America’s coasts were neither engulfed in flames, nor submerged underwater. We weren’t as shitty to each other in the mid-2000s, either, which isn’t to say that we were nice, but that we weren’t yet inured to being harassed and threatened by strangers through social media.
Frontman Nathan Willett appears keenly aware of America ‘21’s toxic atmosphere. “I can’t hear one more sad story / Can’t watch a depressing movie / When this world is too cruel to me / I just wanna scream,” he exhales on the opening lines of “Underground,” a song that, put kindly, is about disappearing and, put bluntly, is about stuffing one’s head into the sand and shutting out the noise of the world beyond the bedroom door. New Age Norms 3 fluctuates between crooning and swooning, and lively, echoing tracks driven by thumping bass and percussion; “Underground” is depressing on the page but, if you tune out the lyrics, makes for good grooving through uptempo drumming. It’s a banger, as the youths say.
It’s also one of the stronger expressions of the album’s themes, being implicit instead of explicit. Memeified, “Underground” works perfectly in the “Tell Me Without Telling Me” format: Tell me how times have changed without telling me that times have changed. It’s a letdown that New Age Norms 3 follows that personalized representation of its thesis by saying exactly that on “Times Have Changed.” To his credit, Willett acknowledges exactly how far he and the band have come. “Kids growing up / But I won’t live in yesterday,” he hums as the song bursts into its exultant chorus, buzzing with earnest reflections about the Cold War Kids’ identities in 2021.
Listening to a veteran act ask directly whether they’re relevant anymore—whether, to paraphrase Willett, they’re losing their touch—is refreshing. But the leap from subtext to text is jarring, and one of the spots where New Age Norms 3 trips up, though “Times Have Changed” at least does us a solid by being a good song. Joe Plummer pulls back on his speed, and Willett’s voice fluctuates, down-up-down-up, a rollercoaster ride through the struggle of adapting to new circumstances. Maybe “Times Have Changed” is necessary, or even inevitable: Maybe that message needs to be made overt, if only so the band can get it off their chests and keep it from muddying the rest of the record. Subtlety suits Cold War Kids’ intentions better, or at least intimacy.
When New Age Norms 3 articulates the group’s own experiences with these changing times, it coheres nicely. Willett’s singing about love and commitment, as on “Always,” a synth-driven bop that reads like a hymn sung to his better half, and “Nowhere to Be,” a jazzy, soulful piece backed up by chiming piano and a purring chorus, helps the album speak to now instead of dwelling on the past.
Thinking of all three New Age Norms releases as one very big record doled out to listeners in eight-track chunks helps bring New Age Norms 3 together. Cold War Kids’ multifaceted style keeps things exciting even at the LP’s weaker points, but how does the story change when taken as a whole? Maybe not by much. Taken on its own, though, New Age Norms 3 shows how much Cold War Kids will push to figure themselves out as they grow and the world around them slowly shifts into something unfamiliar.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
Watch Cold War Kids’ 2020 Paste Studio session below.