Review Summary: I'm in my finest hour
The War on Drugs’ 2011 record Slave Ambient
was an impressively layered pastiche of roots rock and noisy navel-gazing, lush and pockmarked with nooks and crannies, the stitches holding together Petty and Dylan with Neu! and My Bloody Valentine barely visible. It stumbled and soared through a negative image of the American heartland while injecting it with some modern indie sensibilities, but the band’s distinctive tone, introduced on 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues
and tirelessly honed after the departure of founding member Kurt Vile, remained stronger than ever. Letting yourself float along never felt so good.
It’s a testament to Adam Granduciel, the founder and main creative force behind the Philadelphia four-piece, then, that in hindsight Slave Ambient
merely feels like a precursor to the band’s possibilities: Lost in the Dream
arrives with a thesis meant to explore them fully. “Well the comedown here was easy / like the arrival of a new day / but a dream like this gets wasted / without you,” Granduciel sings on “Under the Pressure,” both an introduction to the album’s sense of purpose and a reference to the events that led to its creation. Granduciel split with his girlfriend during the early stages of the album’s recording, and Lost in the Dream
spends most of its time wondering how to pick up the pieces of a broken American dream.
It’s a story told in bits and pieces. She’s “the only one, like an illusion,” on “Under the Pressure.” Arms meant to comfort are hostile and cold on the similarly chilly “Disappearing,” which feels like Granduciel floating through a vacuum soundtracked by Tangerine Dream. With “Suffering,” Granduciel knows that they’re “both gonna fake it,” even though the pain that song contemplates is powerfully real: “like the feeling that you gave me, like a snowflake through the fire / I’ll be frozen in time / but you’ll be here suffering.” This sort of cracked ballad has never been a hallmark of the War on Drugs, but perhaps it should be. “Suffering” may be the most beautiful composition Granduciel has put to record, a simple portrait of a relationship past its expiration date and moving on pure inertia while guitars curlicue along the edges of Granduciel’s wounded vocals. It’s a moment that feels gorgeously, hopelessly suspended, both for Granduciel and the listener.
That “Suffering” is followed by the motorik-meets-Neil Young groove of “An Ocean in Between the Waves” initially feels like a mistake in the track listing, but it fits a wider theme of Lost in the Dream
. Expect the unexpected; light out onto the highway; let the dream take you – any of a number of classic rock, stoner-fed bullshi
t clichés can fit comfortably here, but it’s more than that. The reverb that permeates this record is more than a design choice; the hazy spaces that separate Granduciel’s stained vocals from the instruments, feedback sputtering along like radio signals from a station a thunderstorm away, all of it combines to create an utterly unique sensation of weightlessness. There’s a vast expanse to be explored, and while it’s easy (not to mention a joy) to get lost, Granduciel remains a steady guide. There’s all the verve and naked empathy of the best of his classic rock forebears, with none of the bombast or contrivances. Lost in the Dream
is a long record, to be sure, yet it never overstays its welcome. That’s an underrated trait – the band’s ability to make compositions that stretch a single disc’s limits seem normal, even necessary, is dreamlike in its own right. It’s hard not to see the influence of Vile here, whose bigger-is-better approach to 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze
resulted in one of last year’s best albums and the previous high point in this stoned Americana genre him and Granduciel have more or less defined. An album like this doesn’t come easy, and in the pristine, airtight production and the effortlessly expansive vibe the record projects, it’s easy to miss an artist now working at the peak of his abilities. Granduciel’s painstaking recording process could almost pass for an abusive relationship of his own, but after fifteen months and the endless tinkering that Granduciel has become known for, Lost in the Dream
sounds like a record greater than the sum of its parts.
All the different factors at play here create something that isn’t afraid to deviate and take strange turns and reversals, contrasts that rub up against each other and create some brilliant sparks. Consider the contrasts in Granduciel himself, seemingly emanating from the echo chamber of a farm silo on ascendant first single “Red Eyes,” while camping out by the fire, intimate and open, on the title track. Lyrics sometimes aren’t even necessary, given the interstitial blinking lights of “The Haunting Idle.” The emotions that rise unbidden to the surface are as insistent as the plink of the piano on the triumphant “Burning” and as reckless as the frenzied swirl of guitars that tears through “An Ocean in Between the Waves” like a hurricane, Granduciel’s voice hustling, frantic to keep up. Centerpiece “Eyes to the Wind” is a case study in the record’s dynamics all on its own, starting with its feet planted firmly in Springsteen and Seger before letting itself be borne aloft on eddies of saxophone and piano, a climax that is as rousing and life-affirming as anything the band has ever done. It’s a dream you never want to end.
Eventually, though, you wake up. While the piercing guitar tone and atmospherics on closer “In Reverse” at first call to mind drifting in a fog of crushed up anti-depressants and lighters held aloft, Granduciel’s vocals, clearer than ever, break the murk. “I don’t mind you disappearing / ‘cause I know you can be found / maybe livin’ on the dark side . . . when we’re livin’ in the moment / losing our grasp, makin’ it last,” he sings, before the catharsis arrives, less titanic than perhaps you might have expected but crushingly affecting in its simple honesty: “Sometimes I wait for the cold wind to blow / as I struggle with myself right now / as I let the darkness in / but I don’t mind chasing you / through the back ways for keys / it evaporates and fades, like a grand parade.” It’s a revelation in acceptance, reality finally coring through the dream of the perfect relationship, the major chords in the chorus lifting Granduciel up to a more lucid place than he’s ever been. Lost in the Dream
is a sad record, but it’s also a hopeful one, enriched by the journey of its own heartbreak and the possibilities that remain. Granduciel understands where he has to go from here, “in reverse,” away from the crippling doubts of the past and the insidiousness of what might have been. Yet the most telling part of the record remains the final lyric: “I’m moving.”