Sensitive Kids

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Lucy Hamblin

On their new album, Cold War Kids give love songs a chance.

Nathan Willett likes to read. The 31-year-old lead singer of Cold War Kids revisits his favorite J.D. Salinger books at least once a year and is more likely to reference Hemingway than the Rolling Stones when talking about his songwriting. It's no wonder then that the California rock quartet's stark, bluesy 2006 debut, Robbers & Cowards, ignored the standby topics of love and lust, instead spinning moody, literary tales of sin, faith and redemption. But on its third album, Mine Is Yours, the group, which formed at a Southern California Christian college, is ditching most of the angst and singing pretty, cleaned-up songs about love. "I hit a point where I was like, I could keep doing this fictional-narrative-as-song thing," says Willett, who married his longtime girlfriend in 2008, "or I could do something different that I've never tried before."

Though Mine Is Yours contains a few missteps — "Finally Begin" sounds like something that might be heard in a Sandra Bullock comedy — for the most part, Cold War Kids have managed to smooth their edges while remaining jagged in all the right spots. The album's pounding first single, "Louder than Ever," isn't a breakup song so much as a we-need-to-talk anthem. "Royal Blue," easily the best track, is a spirited, piano-and-guitar number about the redemptive quality of devotion.

There are no fictional stories on Mine Is Yours, no songs about murderers, thieves or women who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Devoted fans might find the band's makeover hard to take, but Willett hasn't abandoned his literary influences. "Sensitive Kid," an autobiographical account of his parents' divorce, is full of telling, writerly detail (missing silverware, discarded family photo albums) — and it's no wonder: the song was inspired, Willett says, by Jonathan Franzen's memoir The Discomfort Zone. "That book nailed it for me," he says. "It's O.K. to tell stories from your past that are embarrassing or that make you look vulnerable." And it's O.K. to put out an album like that too.