Close to finishing the band's fourth album, Cold War Kids found themselves working a new song, a peppy blast of a single with layered meanings for songwriter Nathan Willett.
"Miracle Mile" begins with the line, "I was supposed to do great things," a notion that reflects on the band's own history and direction as well as the larger themes that populate Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, an album that explores feelings of isolation, confusion and disenchantment.
"It wasn't by design to start the whole record with that, but I was really happy it played out that way, with that song starting," Willett says.
"In some ways it's the character in that song and it some ways it's how I think about myself and our band. It's sort of a universal thing, a band has this enormous promise of conquering the world, and that line is a nice way to start that record for the place our band is and the journey we've had," he says.
Willett conceived of the album as sort of a response to reading Nathanael West's 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. The book, about a newspaper advice columnist who, feeling burdened by the desperation in the letters he receives, falls into a deep depression, sparked some songwriting ideas for Willett.
"I like the idea of that advice columnist looking for meaning in his work and seeing that as a parallel to musicians, whether they're writing for their own sake to get their own thoughts out or whether they're writing for a bigger thing that's directed toward their audience," Willett says.
"It's not meant to be totally conceived around that book," he explains, but rather, attempts to draw out central themes in the novel.
The songs follow a thread of self-examination, though it's Willett writing from a variety of perspectives, sometimes specific invented characters and sometimes more fragmented ideas.
It's similar in a way to how Willett wrote on some of the more captivating songs from Cold War Kids' excellent 2006 debut, Robbers & Cowards. But where songs like "We Used to Vacation" and "Hospital Beds" are grounded and concrete, Willett challenged himself on Dear Miss Lonelyhearts to write in a more abstract manner.
"On the first record, there are certain songs driven by the character or the context. You have to find that balance where you're not letting a character overwhelm the song too much," he says. "I think these songs in some way have less of an ultraspecific context they're coming from, more of an abstract or poetic thing."
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts also represents a period of growth and exploration for the band itself. Cold War Kids recruited former Modest Mouse and Murder City Devils guitarist Dann Gallucci to replace original guitarist Jonnie Russell and, seeking a more spacious sound, recorded in the band's private studio in San Pedro, Calif.
"We were dealing with a lot of new factors. We wanted to record in our home studio, we had our new guitarist Dan, also producing and engineering. We wanted to retain the qualities the band has always had and find some new space. It's a transitional record and we knew that from the beginning," Willett says. "Sonically, or musically, we wanted to do something different. Dan as a guitar player is different than Jonnie and he's in some ways thinking as an engineer, too, and getting the most out of our space."
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts lets the band indulge in some artistic exploration, both in the sound and the songwriting process, abandoning expectations and some of the creative boundaries the band had developed.
"We did things in two extreme ways. Certain songs we built starting just with chords and keyboard lines and things, one at a time," Willett says. "Other songs were more like the way we've always done things, recording live with all of us in the room playing."
After 2011's Mine Is Yours, on which the band struggled to create a more commercial sound and ended up dropping what it did best, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts represents a band recapturing its core.
"From the beginning, I knew the qualities of what people love most about us are the stripped down, bluesy things. Our struggle is that we love that, but what else do we need to do? How do we stretch that out?"
Ultimately, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is an effective presentation of both aspects.
Songs like "Miracle Mile," "Tuxedos," "Jailbirds" and album closer "Bitter Poem" play on the band's established strengths, while songs like "Loner Phase," "Fear & Trembling" and "Bottled Affection" incorporate fresh sounds.
"We've definitely toyed around with what we can do," Willett says. "We started off with more of a raw bluesy sound and I'm happy we can explore where else to go with it. With this record we played around with some new-wavey things or electronic things and, again, it's a transitional record for us."
Sequencing also allows the band to craft the album as an experience, weaving different emotions throughout the course of the songs.
"The great thing about a record is there are these mysterious reasons why you want to place everything where it is," Willett says. "I think the record starts and ends with songs that are more live sounding, more like what we do well. The songs that have more synthetic elements are more in the center of the album. It shows a journey and the arc of it all."
Touring Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is also a new experience for Cold War Kids, with Gallucci and new touring multi-instrumentalist Matthew Schwartz enabling wider arrangements, especially for the electronic and synth-driven new songs. After four albums, the band feels comfortable adapting on the fly, swinging between bluesy and new-wavey, between sparse and wild. It's a transition—and a transitional album—that bodes well for the band's future.