Album Review: The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

2014's Band of the Year magnifies their vision on their major label debut




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The War on Drugs should be headlining music festivals. Seeing how it’s 2017, and the model for rock bands who can feasibly headline a major festival has made it so you have to sell millions of records like Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam or cash in on decades old nostalgia like The Strokes or Modest Mouse, the likelihood of a closing slot is low. Though, of any rock band to emerge in this decade, The War On Drugs craft the kind of majestic, expansive songs that all but beg to be heard in a crowd of thousands on an open field just after the sun sets. Three years ago, this site crowned them the best band of the year after their classic Lost In The Dream. With their follow up, A Deeper Understanding, the band magnifies their vision across 10 staggering tracks that make a compelling case for why they should be the biggest band.

A Deeper Understanding marks the band’s major label debut for Atlantic, a term that takes on a new meaning in a year where Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem released their first records on major labels well after their career peaks. For The War on Drugs, it feels like a step up to a new level in a classic sense, especially after a 2015 endorsement from Jimmy Iovine himself, who praised the band in an interview with Billboard, saying they should be “gigantic.”

Listening to A Deeper Understanding, it’s easy to see why the producer behind some of the biggest albums of the ‘80s, an era of grandiosity, would say that. The band has never been shy of wearing their influences on their sleeve, whether it’s latter-day Dylan or whatever Springsteen, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, or The Eagles were putting out in the ’80s. After almost a decade of playing together, the band has hit their stride and developed their sound to a point where, yes, elements of those influences are present, but more than anything, they sound distinctly like themselves.

The band’s Grateful Dead cover of “Touch of Grey” on last year’s Day of the Dead compilation showed their comfort in a more free-roaming atmosphere, and while they haven’t evolved into a new incarnation of the Dead, they’ve given into the sprawl on A Deeper Understanding. It was telling that the first song released was “Thinking of A Place”, a dreamlike odyssey that clocks in just over 11 minutes. The track unfolds slowly, twisting its way in a concerted manner to where every breath feels pronounced. Adam Granduciel sings of a love just out of reach, a feeling imagined in vivid detail but inaccessible, and as his guitar stretches and dances around a winding solo, he captures the futile desperation of striving for something that cannot be.

Granduciel is a noted perfectionist, and the amount of care and precision taken into composing the album is immediately apparent. Every note from the Wurlitzer, crack of the snare, or blast of the harmonica is perfectly timed. While each song has plenty of room to breathe across long running times, as seven of 10 cross the six-minute mark, they are crafted with an impeccable focus. The album is full of moments that strike that sweet spot, whether it’s the massive solo on “Strangest Thing”, the overwhelming rush of when the first chorus hits on “Clean Living,” or the way the guitars and drums come in to accentuate each syllable as he sings the titular line of “Knocked Down”. There’s a striking clarity to the production, in how Granduciel’s voice is always present and upfront in the mix, unlike the clouded moments of reverb and echoes that underscored the haziness of Lost In The Dream.

Granduciel can seem a reluctant frontman for a band that makes albums as ambitious as this. One criticism of the band has always been their impressionistic lyrics that work in service to the song but don’t always stand out beyond that. While the lyrics here often follow a similar pattern, as vague references to “rain,” the “night sky,” and a guiding “light” are abundant, Granduciel has grown as a songwriter. He may not be a wordsmith like Fiona Apple or Nick Cave, but he’s blossomed into an evocative lyricist. Take, for instance, a song like “Pain”, where he simply and astutely cuts to the core of an internal struggle. On the sweeping closer “You Don’t Have To Go,” he pens a compassionate plea, direct and affecting as the band rises to meet the longing in his voice. The lyrics do a fine job of carrying the emotional weight, but there’s less pressure when his guitar and the rest of the band do the bulk of that work.

Over the course of 66 minutes, The War On Drugs weave a grand tapestry with a clear vision. It’s a step in a different direction from Lost In The Dream, and while songs like “Up All Night” and “Nothing To Find” carry a certain momentum, it’s a less urgent record, one content to take its time. Still, given that the album’s front-loaded with powerful singles, the back half tends to get a little repetitive, especially after the vast masterpiece “Thinking of a Place”. “Knocked Down” has its moments, but often lingers in time, lacking the bombast of the tracks surrounding it, while “In Chains” covers similar ground to “Holding On”, save for its extended harmony solo. All too often, the band adheres to a formula, and deviations like “Thinking of a Place” underscore how the other tracks can blur together. Though, when the template used for writing a song is as stellar as the one they use over the course of the album, it’s hard to fault The War On Drugs for sticking to it.

Throughout A Deeper Understanding, The War On Drugs develop their strengths, taking what they do best and airing it out. A master class in widening scope, the record finds the band unafraid to push their sound in a way that feels bigger than what any of their contemporaries are doing. The band may not ever be gigantic, as 11-minute singles aren’t that marketable, but they’ve made a record that sounds huge. Instead of trying to recreate the heightened catharsis of Lost In The DreamA Deeper Understanding suggests a viable path forward from that turning point, a journey blown out to widescreen proportions that breathes new life into a familiar sound.

Essential Tracks: “Strangest Thing”, “Pain”, and “Thinking of a Place”