Music for people who don’t really like music.
Despite any preconceived notions you may have about the Cold War Kids, you have to give them credit simply for the fact that, in 2017, they still exist. It’s a small marvel as many of their peers from the mid-2000’s “indie rock” scene either imploded shortly after the music blog bubble had burst, or just faded into obscurity.
With only two of the group’s original members still in on board for the group’s sixth full length and first for a major label – touring members round out the rest of the now five-person lineup – L.A. Divine arrives over a decade after their auspicious and polarizing debut Robbers and Cowards.
Long gone is the ramshackle charm of the band’s earliest days, now replaced by major label bombast and slick production values. At first glance, this makes L.A. Divine seem like a play for some kind of Top 40 acceptance, hoping to find a place in the hearts of those that made outfits like Kaleo and Hozier so successful in recent years.
Trading in the band’s once relatively traditional set up of two guitars, an out of tune saloon-style piano, drums and bass, L.A. Divine finds the Kids weighed down by heavily processed drum breaks and programming, big shout along refrains and pop music song structure and instrumentation—all of which makes this seem like the kind of album that sounds like it was not made by real people. Yes, sure, singer and frontman Nathan Willett still sounds like a real person, but his soaring vocals are really the only trace of humanity you will find on L.A. Divine. The rest of it comes off like it was orchestrated by Max Martin, or, at the very least, Jack Antonoff.
For a listener that has followed them throughout their progression over the last decade plus, maybe this won’t sound so jarring; even a quick look back at their 2014 effort will show the band honing in on this aesthetic with its radio-ready single “First.” But for someone who hasn’t paid the band any attention since before Barack Obama was elected, this big budget, glossy sound can be hard to wrap your head around.
L.A. Divine wastes no time aiming for the rafters, coming out swinging with a huge pop groove on “Love is Mystical,” a song complete with handclaps, tambourine, and “ooh ooh ooh” backup vocals. And the band doesn’t let up there, either. They return to almost the exact same vibe on the album’s third track, but not before sliding into another heavily effected and processed slink. “Can We Hang On” finds Willett digging down deep to channel all the white boy soul he can muster, crooning about how he just needs one more chance with his lady love.
Later, the album’s second half finds the group returning slightly to their original sound with some reverb-y electric guitar on the incredibly jaunty, towering “No Reason to Run,” as well as on the driving rhythm that pulsates through “Invincible 1.”
There are also some small corners of experimentation scattered throughout. In the record’s first half there is the atmospheric and spacey interlude track “La River,” and after the halfway point, there’s the spoken word track “Wilshire Protest,” which maybe seemed like a good idea on paper, but is not as successful in its execution, serving only to bring the album’s relatively even pacing to a screeching halt.
The same can be said for the final segue, “Cameras Always On”—a short, howling piano meditation that goes nowhere prior to the arrival of L.A. Divine’s final two tracks, the self-aware and reflective final “big” statement “Part of The Night,” and a moody, slow-burning song that was destined to be the closing track, “Free to Breathe.”
“The world is changing, can’t you feel the tension? If you’re not angry, then you must not be listening,” are the final words on L.A. Divine. A bit of a heavy handed, it’s a political declaration that arrives way too late in an album that has steered relatively clear of any substantive lyrics, relying instead on those that afford a mindless, “fun” listening experience.
L.A. Divine could be akin to a large scale Hollywood motion picture, something with a lot of CGI and not a ton of plot. It’s the kind of album for folks that maybe just want to tune out and have something with a strong beat and catchy refrain playing in the background, or coming over their car stereo on a nice day. While it’s expensive sounding studio trickery is admirable, in the end it just becomes music for people who don’t really like music.