A Deeper Understanding

The War On Drugs

Atlantic, 2017


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


The band’s fourth album and major-label debut – which surprises me, to be honest – isn’t all that different from 2014’s very good Lost In The Dream. As with that album, Adam Granduciel and his supporting cast tap into heartland classic rock themes and detailed, swirling modern production techniques to craft long, midtempo songs that are meant to envelop.

It’s a fine line to pull off because, as on the prior album, the songwriting doesn’t vary much from track to track. The band tends to find a groove and settle into it, only changing chords when needed, and delivering the songs in a sort of stream-of-consciousness approach so that it reads like a story. It’s the opposite of verse-chorus-verse-bridge; more to the point, it’s the approach favored by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, two of the three biggest influences on the sound here (the third is Tom Petty).


But Granduciel is adept at finding variations within that sound and creating a mood of longing and rumination that permeates the disc. It would be easy for songs like “Pain” and “Strangest Thing” to drift off into their own worlds if the lyrics were the only concern, but the production flourishes add unexpected instruments and elements to really flesh out each track, making it a world unto itself. It’s a very prog-rock thing to do, but this isn’t prog by any normal definition, simply atmospheric, epic classic rock with an indie navel-gazing sensibility.

Granduciel is certainly capable of grandstanding on stage, but the sold-out shows and fan base for this band indicate that’s not an issue, and while there are several welcome guitar solos here they’re part of the fabric of their song. I’m hesitant to apply labels like this to musicians, but Granduciel and the War on Drugs could easily be this generation’s Springsteen and the E Street Band; you know who the frontman is, and the songs are long story-type meditations, and there’s a harmonica from time to time, and it’s all a bit too much but it’s still pretty amazing (check out “Holding On” and the opener “Up All Night”).

The down side is that such an approach can get tiresome over the course of an hour; a couple songs will pretty much take care of your War on Drugs needs for the week, at least in the studio setting. A more balanced attack – a condensing of the format on a couple songs, or maybe a hook instead of a groove – may have given the long tracks some necessary counterweight. Even Bruce knew to follow “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road” with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Born to Run.” Imagine if Born to Run had been a double album with nine different variations of “Thunder Road,” and you’ll start to get the sense of A Deeper Understanding.

But again, that’s not to take away from what The War on Drugs has accomplished. The guitar solos, attention to detail and sonic immersion without seeming self-involved  or showboating is something few bands can pull off. You need some time for this one, preferably alone, perhaps on a cloudy or moody day, to fully absorb the intricacies and overall grand design. It’s easier to admire than to love, but A Deeper Understanding is an ambitious, epic-size success.

Rating: B

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