The War on Drugs : A Deeper Understanding

I don’t think a songwriter has excited me more about the future of music in the last few years more than The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel. It’s ironic, too, given that his music feels more like looking back into the past than forward into some unknown future. I guess I’ve been known to wallow in nostalgia from time to time, so this really shouldn’t be surprising. The thing with The War on Drugs is that Granduciel takes pop radio elements from the 80s and churns them into something new. Yes, there’s some Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits and some Bob Dylan and even some Grateful Dead living and breathing within albums like Slave Ambient, Lost in the Dream, and even his newest record A Deeper Understanding. There’s also hints of Spaceman 3, Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine, and Suicide, but those are less apparent. You need look past memories of bus rides to school with the FM radio blaring “Walk of Life” and “Dancing in the Dark”. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the hazier stuff; the darker stuff that is more prominent than you think in Mr. Granduciel’s work.

A Deeper Understanding is The War on Drugs’ debut for Atlantic Records, but that doesn’t change a thing. This album is as lush and dense as its predecessor, and its just as earnest and open-hearted, too. Adam Granduciel and friends have made yet another masterpiece.

“Up All Night” is the opening salvo and its a glorious one at that. There’s an air of fragility in Granduciel’s Dylan-esque voice as piano, synth, and percussion accompany him. Pretty soon 80s synsonic-style drums come in to give the song a stadium fist-pumping bravado. If 80s Springsteen collaborated with Dream Academy I think they would probably sound like this. This band perfectly melds Top 40 panache with early 80s alternative that would satisfy both the inner Goth and mainstream kid in all of us. “Pain” is one of those songs that rolls over you on first listen. Nothing necessarily sticks, really. But after each listen the small details make themselves known; subtle acoustic guitar, layered melodies, and Mr. Granduciel’s delicate vocal structures all come together over time to reveal a master stroke of songwriting. “Holding On” has the drive and forward motion of Lost in the Dream’s “Red Eyes”. It’s a song that pushes you along, like that friend that tells you “You’re not getting out of this this time!”, inching you towards the haunted house entrance. It’s a glorious track that will never cease putting a smile on my face.

The middle section has a more existential heft to it, with “Strangest Thing” bringing the album into a melancholy haze. Granduciel’s use of electric piano on this album really puts the record in a contemplative head space. It’s not sad or maudlin, just a bit longing is all. “Strangest Thing” captures sunset contemplation quite perfectly. “Knocked Down” pushes the idea of not wanting to get too close to someone for fear of being rejected. “I wanna love you but I get knocked down” Granduciel sings over 60s-style electric piano and an almost Steely Dan-tight rhythm section and phaser-infused electric guitar. “Thinking Of A Place” was released as a single back in April and released as a 12″ on RSD. It was a glimpse into the headspace of The War on Drugs. At over 11 minutes it’s the longest track and it makes its way through a breezy vibe. It feels much like Granduciel’s hazy Polaroid photos. It’s inviting, yet feels like a place you’ll never quite reach yourself.

“In Chains” drives along on a rolling piano line and chugging drums. It’s like Simple Minds and The Hooters recorded together some drunken night in 1985. “Clean Living” is just an unabashed piano ballad. It’s simple and lovely. “You Don’t Have To Go” closes the album out beautifully. The band sounds their most Dylan-esque here, which isn’t a bad thing.

A move to a major record label hasn’t seemed to affect The War on Drugs one bit. In fact, I think its emboldened them to make the most of the opportunities it’s allowed them. They haven’t taken anything for granted here. A Deeper Understanding is an album that lays it all on the line and the results are a lush, beautiful record that feels timeless.

8.8 out of 10


The War On Drugs :: Lost in the Dream

war on drugsI think Adam Granduciel has a lot on his mind. Things that have laid heavy on his shoulders for a couple of years now. You wouldn’t know that at first listen to his excellent new album with The War On Drugs. “Under The Pressure” has an uplift to it that most current artists that would attempt it would just come off as being ironic or pretentious. It has a promise in the delivery; the horns, synths, strummed acoustics give you the feeling that it’s “Morning In America” once again. But listen a little closer and Granduciel tells a different story. Words are more personally apocalyptic. This is “Morning In America” for the latchkey kids and the lost souls, not the affluent and gated community members. “Under The Pressure” is an anthem for the disenfranchised and disillusioned and damn is it catchy. Lost In The Dream is a reminder of a time back in the 80s when artists like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Dire Straits donned the Top Forty. It’s a reminder that pop songs were actually written by the performers of said songs. Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs have written an album filled with massive songs and what could’ve been huge hits 30 years ago. As it happens the 80s are dead but Granduciel didn’t get the memo.

“Red Eyes” is just ridiculously great. It’s got the feeling of Bruce Springsteen on a good day. All driving beats and pop bombast not seen since Bono used to dance with fans in front of the stage. I know the Springsteen connection has been mentioned ad nauseam but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say listening to “Red Eyes” doesn’t take me back to 1984 and watching Bruce dance on stage with a then unknown Courtney Cox. Actually, this whole album takes me back to being a kid and taking trips into town with my mom and on a 20 minute drive hearing a handful of artists on pop radio that now are deemed as “classics”, or even legendary artists. Turn on the radio on your ride home from work today. Tell me if any one of those singers you hear will be deemed as classics or legends thirty years from now. Hell, how many of them actually wrote the song they’re singing? Those numbers will be small. I feel The War On Drugs have tapped into that classic vein. There’s not pretension, no irony, and no sly little grin. Here we have Adam Granduciel creating sonic journeys that aren’t “of the time”. They’re timeless. It only took one listen to “Suffering” and that Leslie speaker guitar solo for me to realize that Granduciel is the real deal. Someone that writes a song as sublime and beautiful as that song isn’t trying to cop a feel and run. He’s in this for the long haul.

There’s so much to love about this album. I can’t get into the lyrics as I haven’t quite broke the code as they say. The words are hazy and somewhat muddled by Granduciel’s delivery, but I know they’re important. Even on the album’s liner notes they’re nearly illegible to read, so I just go with how he says them more than what they really are. The music here is more than enough to win you over. “An Ocean In Between The Waves” sounds like Petty’s “Runnin’ Down A Dream” with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar. It’s an epic jam. When the drums kick in over the drum machine you feel like you kick in the 6th gear and hyper speed. “Disappearing” sounds like a lost collaboration between Bob Dylan and Dire Straits. Or some artist that never existed except in my mind. A song like “Disappearing” seems to have existed in my subconscious for 30 years and heard on so many bus rides and car rides in dreams. “Eyes To The Wind”, the eerie instrumental “The Haunting Idle”, and “Burning” all float along like some drug-induced and hallucinated radio station from my childhood. I was sick a lot as a kid. I was under the influence of many prescription medications. These songs feel old and worn-in to me. They feel comfortable and reassuring. “Suffering” is one of those songs that when it would’ve came on the radio I’d turn my lousy little bedroom radio up as loud as it would go before the speaker would give. “Lost In The Dream” and “In Reverse” bring back some of that ambient noise and lilting melancholy that made Slave Ambient of 2011s best albums.

This album hits me on a much deeper level than most. It brings up memories of childhood. Some that happened and some that didn’t. A childhood that exists in a random car ride with a random radio station. Songs that weren’t ever hits but should’ve been hits, if this were a fair and just world.  Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs have given us their version of “Morning In America”, regardless how dark it may be outside the window.

9.5 out of 10