The classic rock revivalists return with more grand structures, more guitar solos and more songs than necessary
“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” is an expression that can describe few bands better than The War on Drugs.
Their 2014 breakthrough album Lost in the Dream channelled American heroes like Springsteen, Petty and Dylan to propel the fringe indie band to being classic rock revivalists, universally swooned over by waves of critics and brand new fans. They’re the band that got your pothead mate into rock music and your dad back into listening to the radio.
And now they’re back with A Deeper Understanding, hoping to build on their success to become one of the best bands around.
It takes just over 24 minutes to get through the first four songs on the album. Luckily, the start the band gets off to is incredible. Singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel, who sits in the creative driving seat of the band announces their return with the carefree “I don’t know / I’ve been away” on opener ‘Up All Night’.
The misleading blasts of drum machine and punky bass line fade gradually, and the song settles into a gorgeous daze that resembles previous album opener, ‘Under the Pressure’. This is followed by ‘Pain’ which closes with a loud and lucid guitar line that has the sublime quality of an ocean-bound sunset or some shit. With each song, the band reach out and hug the listener, reassuring them that they are indeed back and, yes, brilliant as ever.
Then comes ‘Holding On’, by far the ‘poppiest’ they’ve ever sounded. I have to admit, being released as a single back in June, this took a while to grow on me, but now within the context of the full album it makes complete sense.
The bouncy Casio hook and pounding guitar-drums partnership make it catchy, even danceable. Granduciel, not blessed with the best of voices, grasps at the high notes in the chorus with such confidence the listener has no choice but to sing along appreciatively. This is windows-all-the-way-down, volume-all-the-way-up driving music. This is the sound The War on Drugs have cultivated but with an even brighter punch.
These songs also show a band expanding their instrumental vocabulary. Synthesisers, organs, harmonicas, glockenspiels and slide guitars add even more depth to the dream structures the listener is thrown into. Granduciel has obviously been working on his guitar solos to contribute to this. They appear much more frequently and are more isolated on this record.
Aside from improving his screeching technique, the guitarist has found out how to make them as uplifting as possible. On power ballad ‘Strangest Thing’, the band builds and builds until dropping out to let a ‘Comfortably Numb’-esque heart-wrencher tear the song — and the entire record — wide open, producing the best moment of the whole hour. It’s a moving, single-tear occasion usually reserved for when watching Pixar on a comedown.
It comes as no surprise that these strong starting four players in the album were all released as singles in the build-up. The test then becomes whether the other six reinforcement songs can keep up with the pace. ‘Knocked Down’ slows right down to first gear, but doesn’t quite have the power to put a lump in your throat.
A lurch into fourth follows with ‘Nothing to Find’, which attempts to recreate old classics ‘Ocean in Between the Waves’ and ‘Baby Missiles’ but ends up sounding a bit like a friendship montage from an ‘80s film.
‘Thinking of a Place’ offers redemption, a sprawling highway of a track that the majority of vegan cafés have had on repeat since its first release in April. At 11 minutes, it is so pleasantly long that fans have been said to shut their eyes when listening, believing that Trump’s Presidency will be over by the end of the song. Caressing piano falls, a desert-howling guitar solo and a constant ol’ country strumming remove any risk of getting bored however; in the end, one is left wishing it would go on for just 11 minutes more.
As the album moves into its final act, it shows exhaustion. After a song as beautifully deflating as ‘Thinking of a Place’, it’s hard to get in the mood for even more and the last few tracks end up feeling fairly unimpressionable. The drummer’s favourite formula of kick-snare-kick-snare becomes plodding, whilst Granduciel’s lyrics are filled with boring imagery and overcooked expressions of romantic sadness (“Love is a bird I can’t even see / Even in the darkness right in front of me” on ‘You Don’t Have To Go’).
The band’s previous two efforts, Slave Ambient and Lost in Dream, did a good job of keeping some of their best cards ‘til later. A Deeper Understanding is front-loaded with them though. Ultimately the album comes off as out of balance, perhaps just a few songs too long which, frustratingly, holds it back from being an outstanding work.
Nevertheless, there is much to be in awe of here. The band have lost none of their knack for mind-blowing soundscaping and the few new things they try work very well. In many ways the band demonstrate improvement and succeed in adding to their growing canon of indie-Americana belters.
At the very least, A Deeper Understanding will earn The War on Drugs the high festival billings they deserve and will give listeners enough shivers and heart-squeezes to remain one of the most exciting bands in the world today.