SENSE OF PLACE: The War On Drugs

For his fourth full length as the War On Drugs, Adam Granduciel marries pop, psych, and Prog to create a brilliantly cathartic record that’s an “album” in the most traditional sense possible.

BY FRED MILLS

His name, in case you’ve forgotten, is Adam Granduciel, which, while not rolling incident-free off the tongue, still seems likely to stick in your mind. Equally likely: There’s not a more misleadingly-named outfit right now than the War On Drugs. A moniker like that connotes aggression and dissonance, if not outright musical violence, with a like response—moshing, fist-thrusting, stage diving—expected from the audience.

Hardly. When this Philly band performs, the crowd’s swaying beatifically to the blissed-out drone-pop and rambling rock narratives being spun by the long-haired, charismatic frontman. And the War On Drugs’ ascent from clubdom to festival favorites has been organic, to say the least. There was 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues, for which, at the time, the band included another indie buzz-artist-in-the-making, Kurt Vile. His departure left Granduciel firmly at the helm of the group’s musical vision, and that vision gradually morphed from a brand of indie-rock tilting Americana into the dreamier, more expansive creature that was 2011’s Slave Ambient.

At that point Granduciel certainly wasn’t renouncing his indie inclinations, although he had already proven to be  fond of cramming a lot of lyrics, Dylan/Springsteen style, into his verses. He was also blessed with a lovely, soaring singing voice that at times could suggest a young Roger McGuinn, helping him make the kind of emotional connection with listeners that might have eluded a less confident vocalist. (Indeed, a lush, cinematic track like “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” with its pulsing, motorik percussion and rippling cascades of keyboards and guitars, suggested nothing less than a marriage between McGuinn’s cosmic cowboy-period Byrds and Krautrock psych icons Neu!.) Clearly, Granduciel was in the process of evolving, and the little glimpses he offered the public of that process were fascinating.

By the time of 2014’s Lost In the Dream—as with its predecessor, released by stalwart independent label Secretly Canadian; and significantly, per the then-booming vinyl resurgence, it arrived as a limited edition purple wax 2LP platter of pure eye candy—Granduciel had nigh-on perfected his vision, fulfilling all the promise, and then some, of his earlier work. Factually speaking, it was “indie rock,” but aesthetically and structurally it was pure Classic Rock with a capital “C” and “R.” Song after song revealed how Granduciel has studied the masters, from Fleetwood Mac (the thrumming, exuberant “Red Eyes,” with its “Go Your Own Way” percussion motif) and Dire Straits (“Disappearing,” whose clean, resonant guitar lines were pure Knopfler), to Springsteen (one listen to the anthemic “Burning” was sufficient to have you, ahem, dancing in the dark) and Seger (“Eyes To the Wind” not only nodded at “Against the Wind” with its title, but also bore an “ATW”-inspired piano melody).

Speaking to BLURT’s own Susan Moll around the time the album was released, Granduciel even admitted that his sensibilities had shifted more in the direction of traditional introspective singer-songwriterdom than the indie milieu’s tendency towards ironic distance and meta concerns. “I feel like, for a long time, I just didn’t look inside at all,” he admitted. “I think that’s kind of what the record is about—finally taking that journey to the inside.”

None of the foregoing is to suggest LITD was imitative or derivative, but some of the references were so direct that one at least had to think “homage.” War On Drugs retained certain touches of the so-called indie rock “DIY aesthetic,” yet was also infused with that distinctive classic rock vibe, via overtones of the aforementioned icons—the good parts of those artists’ music, not the self-indulgent ones. And in both the sequencing and packaging, it was clear that Granduciel viewed the album as part of an artform tradition, and not merely a collection of disparate tracks destined for Spotify streaming and playlist cherry-picking.

Which brings us to 2017. In rock lives, a lot can go down in three and a half years. Granduciel has (a) gotten sucked into a ridiculous hip-hop-styled indie-rock beef with Mark Kozelek, of Sun Kil Moon; (b) landed on—and in a number of instances, atop—music critics’ year-end best-of lists for LITD; (c) scored a major label deal with the venerable Atlantic Records; and (d) secured status as a headliner, including at a number of outdoor festivals. With all that going on, it’s not surprising that he decided to take his time sketching out his next move. On A Deeper Understanding Granduciel’s still taking those “good parts” and crafting intensely melodic, rhythmically focused, deeply emotional tunes—part-pop, part-psych, even part-Prog—while simultaneously expanding his sonic palette.

The record opens with “Up All Night,” all shimmering guitars and throbbing, programmed percussion. “Strangest Thing” is a massive, echoing, Spectorian chorale of massed guitars, grand keyboard flourishes, and heavenly harmonies. And later, 11-minute epic “Thinking of a Place”—originally released as a limited edition 12” for this year’s Record Store Day—offers up an impressionistic musical travelogue of alternating textures, ethereal/choirlike backing vocals, and deep-mix instrumental flourishes that ultimately tug the listener down into a near-bottomless pool of sound. Hold that thought: Granduciel even turns this aquatic sonic metaphor into a lyrical one, singing, “See it through my eyes/ Walk me to the water…Lead me through tonight/ Pull me from the water/ Hold my hand as something turns to me/ Just see it through my eyes.”

In its sonic cohesion, this is an “album” in the most traditional sense, cathartic and unencumbered by instant gratification internet GIF culture. That most of the songs clock in at six minutes or more suggests Granduciel isn’t overly concerned about having radio or iTunes hits. Each track follows logically from the previous one, eschewing jarring tonal or rhythmic shifts in favor of subtly recurring melodic motifs. And throughout, Granduciel’s keening, passionate vocals serve as a reassuring connective glue, his introspective lyrics probing themes such as uncertainty towards the future, holding onto love in order to beat the odds, and yearning to break out in order to explore life’s myriad possibilities. That’s about as Springsteenian as it gets.

Don’t be fooled by the name. With the War On Drugs, Adam Granduciel’s not battling anyone here: he’s already won. The “drugs” part of the equation is optional.

Worth Noting for Fans and Collectors: The A Deeper Understanding Limited Edition Deluxe Vinyl Box Set includes vinyl pressed on 2 12″ coke-bottle-green color vinyl plus one 7″ coke-bottle-green color vinyl (“Holding On” b/w “Nothing to Find”). Also in the package is the RSD ’17 release “Thinking of A Place” 12”  (standard black vinyl), a custom made case, an exclusive 16-page photo and lyric booklet, a double-sided 12” x 24” poster, and the A Deeper Understanding CD.

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