Andrew Tanner wonders whether the new War On Drugs album is too beautiful for its own good…
Have pain and regret ever sounded this pretty? On A Deeper Understanding Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs fashion a swooning soundscape that turns introspection into art rock.
If you had to pick a handful of rock acts that summoned up the zeitgeist of 2017, Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs would have to be in there. Adam Granduciel’s widescreen, reverb-drenched dream-rock has won critical acclaim and an ever-expanding audience through three albums and constant touring. His band’s triumph has been to build a catalogue of arena-worthy anthems without resorting to bombast or fist-pumping lyricism. A self-acknowledged production obsessive, Granduciel’s new album ups the ante on his multi-layered, textural songs. You can almost imagine the stank of stale studio air and the deathly pallor of exhausted engineers as you soak in the album’s studiously crafted tracks.
It wasn’t always so. Earlier albums drew praise for the way the band melded classic rock grit (cue harmonica, strummed acoustics, meandering guitar solos) to a spacier, cinematic aesthetic. Critics invoked the Holy Triumvirate of Dylan, Petty and Springsteen more than once. However, 2014’s Lost In A Dream previewed a shinier sound, one that leaned less on rootsy Americana and took full advantage of the sculptural possibilities of studio technology. A Deeper Understanding takes the sheen of that album and buffs it even harder. In fact, the glistening keyboards, treated drum loops and dense atmospherics on tracks like opener ‘Up All Night’ call to mind acts from a less storied musical decade. Yep, this listener actually thought of Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw. And not for the first time Granduciel borrows Rod Stewart’s 1981 ‘Young Turks’ groove for the arena stomper ‘Nothing To Find’.
While the production turns the dial to epic on A Deeper Understanding, the lyrics conversely mine a more intimate, contemplative vein. A songwriter who does wistful better than just about anybody, Granduciel’s emotive rasp brings a rawness to lyrics that meditate on loss and the struggle for connection. A quick glance at the tracklist tells you what to expect – ‘Pain’ (track 2), and its attendant sorrows. On ‘Strangest Thing’ he wonders ‘am I just living in the space between the beauty and the pain and the real thing?’ ‘Holding On’s opening line leaves you in no doubt as to the dark road the singer is walking – ‘Once I was alive and I could feel, I was holding on to you’, while ‘Knocked Down’ nails the heartbreak of a doomed romantic (‘I want to love you but I get knocked down, I want to love you when I’m lying in the ground’), the emotion ratcheted up via some sweetly mournful Rhodes piano. It all sounds a little plaintive on paper, but then, music’s great gift is to transform simple emotions into something more complex and nuanced. It’s a sleight of hand Granduciel knows well.
A Deeper Understanding sparkles, swoons and shines. Many will enjoy its meticulously burnished beauty. Others may find its songs slide by a little too easily, lacking a burr or edge to catch themselves on.