In my opinion, a phobia of Los Angeles is a perfectly normal thing to have. After a week of studying postmodernism, combined with watching all three seasons of Bojack Horseman in the same time frame, I’d be surprised if anyone did still have any positive feelings about the place. To be honest, it terrifies me. If ever I start to get a twinge of panic, I just think of Beverly Hills and suddenly all other horrors in my life seem tiny by comparison. To cut a long story short, I wouldn’t particularly like to take a holiday there. Ever. But there’s good news - now I don’t have to, because Cold War Kids’ latest LP, L.A. Divine, has managed to catch the strange and twisted soul of the city and channel it into fourteen desert-shaking rock songs.
The album starts as it means to go on: with power. The opening track, Love Is Mystical, has the intensity that the band does better than almost any other artist I can think of. Its melancholy lyrics are wrapped in frontman Nathan Willett’s intense vocals and the simple yet impactful accompaniments from the rest of the band, who forego complex digital arrangements in favour of actually playing their instruments, and playing them well. It sets the tone for the album: a sort of epic, lonely sadness, searching for meaning and love in a massive desolation.
The next couple of songs take a step back, while still managing to keep up the intensity that is a trademark of the band. Although they don’t stick in the mind quite as much as the opener, these are still damn good songs – in fact, it is difficult to pick out any particular weak point in L.A. Divine. Each track is, at its worst, still a good filler for a strong album that could still stand strong as a decent single. Restless comes forth, a slower song that melts into the interlude that provides a much-needed break from what otherwise could become quite a relentless succession of heavy-beat tracks. From No Reason to Run, L.A. Divine becomes much livelier, leaving the miserable undertones of its first act behind. At this point, with the album irreversibly intertwined with the city in my head, I’m starting to think that maybe the place isn’t as much as a heartless, fun-sucking tar pit as I thought. If ‘being able to change my mind about something’ isn’t a sign of good music, then I don’t know what is.
Open Up the Heavens is dark and menacing in the best kind of way. Wiltshire Protest, more of spoken word than song, is something I am delighted by – not least because it’s got Wiltshire in the title. You could not get less LA than Wiltshire, and indeed this brief track seems to take a step away from the band’s US blues style to a more British, punk-rock influence that carries on to suffuse the next part of the album. Of course, it is only natural that an undercurrent of revolution has travelled over the pond to find itself a new home in Cold War Kids’, and many other artists’, creations. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that, just before this album was released, the band was involved in a musical protest in the run-up to Donald Trump’s presidency. While Ordinary Idols seems like a reflection on personal experiences, lyrics such as “imitation is not a sin/you’re only guilty if you’re caught” become all the more powerful when you consider what’s happening in the country this album was made for.
The album continues to fuse the culture of the city into intimate emotions. In Cameras Always On Willett sings “I want to be famous in your eyes”, only to go on in the next song to say “careful not to overexpose/do you remember what we started this for?” While being an LP about love, Cold War Kids also create an ode to La La Land (not the film) in all its complicated, selfish, beautiful glory. L.A. Divine captures a mood of determination and desolation, of love and loneliness, and, perhaps most importantly, of rebellion. Free to Breathe, the closing track, encapsulates the tone of the city as it is now perfectly. Not just a city, but a potential centre to against the way that the world is. A divine town, striving for something better – not just for each individual, the songs seem to urge, but as a collective. “The world is changing,” Willett sings in the closing lines, “can you feel the tension? If you’re not angry, you must not be listening.” The source of power in these visceral songs is, like all the best art, anger. Anger and a hope for something better.
And, if you were wondering, yes. I do kind of want to go to L.A. now. I just need to see if Donald will let me in.