Review: The War on Drugs – A deeper understanding

Philadelphia‘s bare-brick buildings, harsh holiday heat, and chafed charm made for a sublime if tiring summer holiday.

Coming directly from New York, Philadelphia offered brief albeit humid respite to Manhattan’s oppressive, bewildering pace.

Whether walking down Walnut Street, following the meandering Delaware river, or ambling through Fishtown, there’s a whimsical world around you bubbling with colour and creativity.

Residents consume the history around them with vigour and appreciation. Neighbours call ‘good morning’ to one another in glee. Artists and workers alike jostle and jibe while admiring their respective creative efforts and wiping sweat from their dirtied brow.

In this peaceful space, one might turn to Springsteen or Neil Young for a clichéd Philadelphia soundtrack. Yet neither capture the spirit of the city.

The War On Drugs, on the other hand, do.

And they’re not just a solid soundtrack for Philly. They’re a solid soundtrack for life.

A Deeper Understanding exists in the same vein as The War On Drugs’ previous release, the 2014 album of the year Lost In A Dream. Melodic guitar solos, textured keyboard riffs, and reverb-laden, anthemic choruses punctuate thudding drums and billowing basslines.

This time, Adam Granduciel’s voice is mercifully brought up in the mix, giving a new clarity and poignancy to the vocals. Instead of occasionally struggling to hear garbled poetry on Lost In A Dream before, A Deeper Understanding places Granduciel front and centre. It’s a wise decision as, despite some vague lyrical content, Granduciel’s tender tones tell tall tales of the unknown, of love, and of reflection.

First single ‘Thinking of a Place’ is The War On Drugs’ opus – a fine, vivid musical journey, spanning over 11 minutes. ‘Strangest Thing’ is equally superb, blending sudden, screeching guitar solos with humming harmonica, soft choral keyboards, and touching lyrics. These two tracks alone are worth the money. Together, they’re perhaps The War On Drugs’ best work.

There’s a slight dip when ‘Holding On’ enters the fray, sounding perhaps too closely to the 2014 single ‘Red Eyes’ to feel anything unique.

Yet context is needed: if ‘Holding On’ was the best song on anyone else’s album, you’d still say the album was great. Here, on A Deeper Understanding, it’s among the weaker tracks; but it’s still great. Overall, the quality of music, in terms of construction and production, is pretty hard to fault.

The only real underwhelming moments come with ‘Up All Night’, a punchy, poppy tune that sounds like Tom Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly’ interpreted for a Korg synth.

Then there’s ‘In Chains’, which doesn’t seem to fit into the album’s style, with odd time signatures and formulaic riffs. And I’ve forgotten ‘Clean Living’, which perhaps sums that up the best.

 

A Deeper Understanding uses the same ingredients as Lost In A Dream, but produces a slightly different recipe. Yet like any good recipe, too much of the same can become tiring. Even with increased exposure, world tours, late-night TV performances, I fear The War On Drugs sometimes tread the line between a musical revelation and relegation to background music.

When Lost In A Dream landed in 2014, it was my musical revelation. It cut itself from a rich tapestry of influences, stitching part Tom Petty, part Dire Straits, part Neil Young, part Joy Division, and perhaps part Dylan, into a seamless outfit.

At the time, I called Lost In A Dream the best album of the year, and perhaps the best of the 2010s.

I remain committed to this declaration.

A Deeper Understanding, while certainly one of the best albums of 2017 so far – perhaps the best alongside White Reaper’s confident, cheeky The World’s Best American Band – doesn’t surprise or illuminate in the same way Lost In A Dream did. Some of it you can relegate to the background.

Despite this, A Deeper Understanding is a stunning work. Like the city the spawned the band, it’s sublime if a little tiring and worn.

Words: Ashley Scrace

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