New Album Review: The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding.

New Album Review: The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding.

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.

Marvel Pays Tribute to Legal Guardians

Marvel Pays Tribute to Legal Guardians

(Spoilers ahead)

I don’t usually write film reviews. Let me prove this by giving my verdict on Guardians of The Galaxy: Vol 2 immediately, rather than keeping you on tenterhooks until the final paragraph: it’s not as good as the first one (which is excellent). You probably knew that already. However… there is a ‘but’.

 

Vol. 2 doesn’t feel as fresh as the original, for the simple fact that the first film now exists — it’s impossible to surprise an audience with the same trick twice. Vol. 2 is still a fantastically quirky, self-deprecating, and at times, hilarious film, which borders on Spaceballs-esque sci-fi spoof. However, there were periods when the film faltered and I became restless for more gags, which, when they came, didn’t always hit the mark. I found it impossible to care about the story of the sisters and their scenes were undoubtedly the weakest in the film, often weighed down by the green one’s reluctance to display emotion and the robot one’s choice of just two: icy menace or theatrical anger.

 

The centrepiece of the movie is an ambitious, Freudian story, pitting step-dad against real-dad on a hyperbolic scale. This is delicate material, which has genuine sentiment for millions who are anchored by the ‘step’ prefix. This theme may have been suffocated by the CGI E-numbers and one-liners had the writers not provided some pantomime clues that this is supposed to be a more meaningful blockbuster. There is a moment when, unrelated to the patriarchal plot, a goon screams “It’s a metaphor!” in a tongue-in-cheek wink to the audience: this film has metaphors, and we’re not afraid to use them. And if that wasn’t clear enough, they went and named Quinn’s father ‘Ego’.

 

Where the first film poked fun at the absurdity of saving the Universe — and in doing so, inadvertently exposed just how one-dimensional The Avengers films are — the second film has a more serious undercurrent: it deals with real-life shit; the overlapping, crisscrossing family dynamics of modern life. The portrait of a ‘normal’ family is now so rare, the very idea seems fantastical or even obsolete – especially on screen.

 

Vol. 2 is a story about (spoiler alert?) a son putting their absent biological father on a pedestal so high, that no paternal stand-in could ever hope to compete. This familiar dynamic is taken to the ultimate extreme: Quinn’s long-lost Dad is a planet-building god (with a small ‘g’). How can Quinn’s surrogate father, an aging, blue-man-group outcast, compete with an intergalactic deity? Especially when it appears that he kidnapped the ‘Star Lord’ as a young boy for his own Fagan-esque gain.

 

This is affecting material, which feels heavy and important against a here-we-go-again, end-of-the-universe backdrop. And it’s the weight of these familial themes which highlight the film’s major flaw. I just didn’t care that the universe might end – do we ever in these Marvel films? We know it’s never going to end. The main characters are never going to die. It all feels so predictable… until, a surprise which shows real bravery from the writers. And by the end, after the emotive jostling and blurry CGI punch-ups (an abhorrent problem across all these superhero films), the film climaxes with a genuine tug at the throat: as souped-up fireworks flower across the screen, it’s the iconic words of Cat Stevens’ Father and Son that yield the most powerful special-effect. The heart of this film was there all along. “It’s a metaphor!”

 

Vol. 2 is not as well-rounded a film as the first, but I have to admire its ambition – flawed ambition, yes – but I’d take flawed ambition over a safe bet every time. Take note, The Last Jedi.