Review Summary: Yes! A War on Drugs guitar solo!
There’s a lovely profile on the now defunct Grantland (RIP) of Adam Granduciel, the frontman of proud beer commercial rockers the War on Drugs, published just weeks before Lost in the Dream
changed his fortunes forever. In it, Granduciel comes across very much like the tortured perfectionist he is, simultaneously obsessed about the “minutiae” of making a record and drained by it: “…it was just him and this record living together in a big, empty, lonely house … he had nothing to do but ruminate on how to tweak, then revise, and then completely rework songs. He lost sleep over this album. He literally got sick over this album.” The careful craft in the finished product was obvious; so were the stress points. The success of Lost in the Dream
lay in capturing that dichotomy, the artist torn between his wrenching personal issues, deep heartbreak and self-doubt, and his preternatural skill at creating sweeping, widescreen epics that were anything but confused – about where they wanted to go, how they wanted to make you feel, what sort of beauty could be mined in a pressure cooker. Given both unprecedented success for his band and a major label budget courtesy of Atlantic, it’s not a surprise to see Granduciel take all the things people loved about Lost in the Dream
and blow it out to even greater proportions. A Deeper Understanding
is the IMAX epic to Lost in the Dream’s
spaghetti western, unabashedly indebted to an AOR, Springsteenian sound that would have been defiantly uncool in the ‘80s and avoids that unsavory distinction here purely through the overwhelming will of its architect. The War on Drugs have never been more comfortable in Granduciel’s skin.
About that “beer commercial lead-guitar sh
it” insult kicked around by a cranky Mark Kozelek a couple years back (the same Mark Kozelek who once released an entire album of acoustic Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs) – in a perfect world, hell yeah the War on Drugs would be soundtracking beer commercials. The Coors drinking public should be so lucky. That blend of muscular heartland rock, Granduciel’s raspy vocals, a shameless dedication to good old fashioned guitar solos, plus a healthy dose of, for lack of a better, less clichéd word, haze
, continue to make up the primordial War on Drugs soup. This is music for stadiums, and proud of it: ten tracks with not a radio-ready single between them that burst forth loaded with Wurlitzers and hissing tape, vibrant synths and a treasure trove of guitar textures, the kind of music that only goes to 11. Releasing the 11-minute “Thinking Of A Place” as the first single would have been a troll job in the hands of any other band, but Granduciel is nothing if not earnest in his intentions. More impressive, “Thinking Of A Place” never feels like your typical long form slog, instead unfurling like an inkblot. Much the same can be said of A Deeper Understanding
, a record that sounds disconcertingly homogenous when looked at as a whole. Listening to it without any particular focus results in a surprisingly trance-like experience, the German-engineered motorik grooves of “An Ocean Between the Waves” transposed to a record’s worth of slow burns and reverb. Granduciel’s freshman year lyrics don’t necessary lend themselves to deep analysis; lyrics like “Am I just living in the space between the beauty and the pain?” and an overabundance of metaphors involving the night and the rain sound more like dime store Ryan Adams than past efforts. The highs here are not as jaggedly strong as old highlights like “Come to the City” or “Red Eyes,” instead preferring to percolate at Granduciel’s own pace, content in the payoff of a well made, intricately detailed song rather than any mammoth chorus. As such, A Deeper Understanding
can glide by blissfully, but also quietly, unassumingly. Blink and you’ll miss some of the finest songwriting of Granduciel’s career.
Considering tracks individually, it is difficult to argue Granduciel is tilling any new ground. Indeed, A Deeper Understanding
is the most War on Drugs War on Drugs record released yet. Yet whether it’s the major label money, the bigger band, or Granduciel realizing he has the green light to indulge his most proletarian sensibilities, few modern rock records can boast the sort of attention to detail lavished on each track here. An ephemeral train chugging along through waves of synths, twinkling piano and a heartbeat of a drum track, “In Chains” seems to stretch on far past its seven minutes. “Up All Night” owns its chintzy opening melody, eventually transforming into a roaring beast of a guitar jam, leviathan riffs and those precision bass kicks. By all rights, glossy single “Pain” should be submarined by its own schlock, Granduciel’s question – “Am I moving back in time / just standing still?” – a thesis statement for the record. Yet its chord changes are primal and uplifting, and that guitar solo, so infuriatingly obvious, is triumphant. At every turn, whenever you expect that surely, this is the hackneyed FM rock trope where Granduciel will fall upon his own sword, he pulls it off with steely-eyed dedication and an effortless weaving together of many, many strands. The new wave cheese of “Holding On?” Bouncy and badass. A straightforward road song, steeped in clichés and lighters held aloft? “Nothing To Find” sees you that and raises you a harmonica feature. A goddamn 11-minute single, the clearest indication of a band falling in love with the smell of their own shi
t? Awesome (see above).
Nearly one thousand words and I still haven’t even discussed “Strangest Thing,” one big, gorgeous crescendo that climaxes with that sunburst of a guitar, a chest pounding affirmation of everything that is pure and good about meat and potatoes rock ‘n roll. Or picturesque closer “You Don’t Have To Go”, a track that sounds a little too much like “In Reverse” for its own good but nonetheless ends things as you’d expect this sort of record to end: contented, a bit high off its own supply, but damn if it doesn’t feel like an earned resolution. This is a record you want to keep throwing adjectives at. Yes, there’s an argument to be made here that Granduciel has played it safe, redirecting his perfectionist tendencies by focusing on something he knows will be successful, and honing it all to a finely tempered point. It’s undeniably cluttered and lyrically generic, the luxurious production teetering on the edge of providing nothing but empty calories. But there’s also something to be said for craftsmanship, for knowing what you do well and doing it even better. If nothing more, A Deeper Understanding
is a testament to Granduciel’s sincerity, his meticulous love for the War on Drugs Sound. When the songs are this satisfying, when each guitar solo tears through cynicism like a wet paper bag, sometimes good old fashioned honesty is more than fine. It’s downright beautiful.