Album Review : 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.



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