An achievement from a group, who, despite their lyrical yearning to understand the self, have unequivocally found themselves as band…
Philadelphia outfit, The War on Drugs, is a band you put on at winding-down parties, or barbeques, or in the office, and you notice something: it makes people stop whatever they’re doing and ask, ‘Who is this?’
Since 2005, when Kurt Vile was an early member, the band has been honing a sound that stirs something within: pulsing, ambient, introspective rock, with warm, layered riffs and synths. Or, as one drunken friend proclaimed to us all in his kitchen at four in the morning: ‘This is just good music.’
The band’s 2014 album, Lost in a Dream, earned accolades across the critical spectrum, from musos to old-school rockers who think The Boss is still the boss. Frontman, Adam Granduciel, leads with a voice that rasps like Springsteen and croons like Bob Dylan – but this isn’t cheap mimicry. Granduciel is a musical force unto himself – the mastermind behind the multi-instrument production on every painstakingly complex track.
New album, A Deeper Understanding, is the first to be penned in the band’s new home, Los Angeles, and whilst the soul searching themes are still present, L.A.’s ‘more is more’ attitude may have influenced an evolution – not reinvention, but more layers, more instruments and longer track-times. There are no stadium-pleasing anthems, but this is an album full of moments that could fill any space, on any scale.
Highlights include, “Thinking of a Place”, a sprawling, ten minute intermission that takes you on a journey you don’t want to end, like a languid, window-seated train ride, where you find yourself hoping for just one more stop, as the unceasing drums drive things forward, like the thump of metallic wheels over railroad sleepers. It’s a track that matches the ambition of their previous album’s high point: the powerful and affecting, “An Ocean Between the Waves”.
“Pain” showcases The War on Drugs at their angst-propelled best, delivering introspective lyrics that set the scene for the rest of the work: I’m here all alone, just begging… give me a deeper understanding of who I am. Yet, the piece is not downbeat; it’s hopeful, determined, and heeds the transience of suffering, building to a soaring, uplifting crescendo.
“Nothing to Find” is the album’s double espresso shot, dissecting the middle of the record: an awakening from the radiant, dream-like tracks that surround it, with energetic, unabating drums that imbue positivity and rejuvenation.
The album is an achievement from a group, who, despite their lyrical yearning to understand the self, have unequivocally found themselves as band, and are comfortable in giving the people what they want – more. There is, however, a risk that the new material could be labelled as ‘samey’. Subtle evolutions are evident in their work, but a selection from Slave Ambient, their 2011 album, could arguably hide unnoticed amongst the track list of A Deeper Understanding. But, then, why must we obsess about reinvention? Leave that to the pop-stars and Kings of Leon. Change isn’t always for the best, especially when you’ve found something so… good.
With an increasingly impressive oeuvre, it’s likely The War on Drugs will begin to reverberate in circles beyond those who, since Lost in a Dream, have quietly coveted them as the best rock band at work today. This is no bad thing. All good music demands the foreground eventually – but, The War on Drugs demand something deeper than that too. That’s who they are.