It seems redundant to say that if you enjoy The War on Drugs then you will enjoy this new War on Drugs album – but it somehow gets to the truth…
The War on Drugs’ records are essentially an odyssey through the mind of their main man, Adam Granduciel. Uncompromising in multiple ways, they are dominated by songs in excess of six minutes in length and which feature the aforementioned frontman’s grandiose, indulgent guitar style. When spelt out in words like that, it might not sound like a lot of fun – but oh boy it’s fun. There are other musicians on the record, of course, but they are all there in service to Granduciel’s singular vision.
Following up 2014’s Lost in the Dream, this new album is equally epic – six minutes longer, in fact. The ten tracks on A Deeper Understanding give us all the clues needed to decode a few things about Granduciel’s state of mind, as well as enough musical firepower to get us through the coming winter. From a songwriting point of view, he is a master at coining those four or five note twinkling, plucked guitar phrases that hook right into your memory so that each time they come around – and they are sprinkled liberally – they give you that little buzz of excitement. ‘Up All Night’ and ‘Holding On’ are coated in them, the latter of which is this album’s big pop moment. Granduciel, so often a languid, understated vocalist, rouses himself into a big chorus, injecting a vibrant energy that really bounces. It’s a banger of sorts, the only real moment that breaks the record’s dominant tempo.
The rest is doing its own thing, operating at its own speed, unbothered by the fact that anybody might want to listen in. It’s unbelievably refreshing to hear something so determined to be itself. The biggest track is ‘Thinking of a Place’, an eleven minute ambling trip down a particularly nostalgic lane of Granduciel’s memory, recalling an old romantic getaway of his in the American wilderness, a Proustian rush of a track that evokes tastes and smells as well as it does images.
And then there is Granduciel’s guitar. Most of these tracks build to enormous solos, luxurious and open-ended, something to bathe in. The biggest of them comes on ‘Strangest Thing’, a bursting, skyscraping performance that will you leave you in a strung-out blissful state. On closer inspection, Granduciel is not quite revelling in the ecstasy that we might be though: “Am I just living in this space between the beauty and the pain…and the real thing,” he sings with disheartening sincerity. It’s a theme too on ‘Pain’, one of the best songs the band have ever released. “I met a man with a broken back, he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand,” is just one of several cries for help in that song’s lyrics.
Whatever anguish Granduciel is dealing with, one can only hope that the music is helping. Later in the album comes a song named ‘Clean Living’, which also happens to be the only track here that is dominated not by guitar but by piano. Is he saying that all this guitar freak-outery isn’t healthy, or does it simply go hand-in-hand with a certain mental instability? The song is light and charming, but lacks the bark and bite that comes with the trademark War on Drugs stamp. From a selfish listener point of view, one hopes that Granduciel does not need to ditch the guitar to achieve happiness.
The War on Drugs sound unlike any other in the world right now – and A Deeper Understanding is the sound of them burrowing even deeper into their patch, indulging in their lazy, Americana, Crazy Horse-inspired reverie more than ever before. Sit back, put your feet up, pour yourself a long drink and relax – it’ll only take 66 minutes.