Like Black Kids and Vampire Weekend, Cold War Kids are perhaps as well known for their music as they are for exposing the broken machinery in the way people engage with music in the Web 2.0 world. Championed as a fully-formed, revelatory band based upon a couple of leaked tracks, subjected to a harsh anti-hipster backlash, and then the always-fun backlash-to-the-backlash all before their debut album, 2006’s Robbers & Cowards, dropped, Cold War Kids have been subjected to a hype cycle characterized by impatience and posturing. So whether or not it’s fair, there’s a feeling that their sophomore album, Loyalty to Loyalty, represents the band’s last chance to justify themselves to a relatively wide audience that views them at arm’s length because all they know of the band is their hype.
What Loyalty proves, then, is that Cold War Kids were never likely to hold onto a wide audience. What worked about Robbers has been perpetuated and expanded here: A soulful topicality with which many other contemporary rock bands can’t be bothered, and a willingness to experiment with freeform, ambling blues arrangements. Expanding those elements of their sound, however, sacrifices a good deal of their accessibility. But for the 4/4 stomp of lead single “Something Is Not Right with Me,” there’s not a conventional hook to be found on the record. Instead, songs like “Lilac Wine” and “Cryptomnesia” are characterized by shapeless arrangements that never resolve into a definite direction, while too many lyrics take the form of finger-wagging political proclamations like, “Raising your kids, America/You treat ’em like an obligation” from “Welcome to the Occupation” and, “Forget ex-girlfriends/We want little governments” from opener “Against Privacy.”
Cold War Kids have exploded rather than refined their style here, which too often turns what were formerly strengths into liabilities and turns what were formerly liabilities into, well, even greater liabilities. Chief among those is frontman Nathan Willett’s need to place himself too far in front of the band and to turn up the volume on his already divisive vocal style. While his histrionic yelp works within the context of “Something Is Not Right with Me” as an isolated, standalone single, its impact is blunted by the fact that he delivers most every song with the same intensity and the same drunken Jeff Buckley disinhibition. Coupled with the songs’ overworked lyrics, it only heightens the impression that Loyalty is more of a sermon than an album, and it’s likely that Cold War Kids could soon find themselves preaching to an ever-diminishing choir.