Review Summary: The War on Drugs encapsulate every relevant foundation of Americana into a viable Album of the Year candidate.
When I first heard the soon-to be-seminal “Baby Missiles” my first thought was somebody needs to put Brandon Flowers on suicide watch, because it’s exactly the kind of song he failed to write back in 2006 while sardonically bellowing to every media outlet in existence that “Sam’s Town” was going to be the greatest Americana album of all time. Flowers and the Killers exasperated themselves trying to be Bruce Springsteen, and they not only missed that mark entirely but in the process egregiously missed the point. To fully embroil oneself in Americana, it requires a hell of a lot more than trying to replicate those beautiful everyman journeys championed by the Boss. It demands further and more in-depth examination, because in reality Springsteen himself only wanted to be Bob Dylan but wisely saw the bigger picture. Anyone can try to ape the stylings of a legend, but in the end it comes down to really nothing more than sincerity. The Killers didn’t have it. The War on Drugs do.
Well executed Americana is like irony, a concept almost impossible to define in a literary manner yet something that becomes glaringly obvious when presented in its truest form. It’s the reason the last 45 seconds of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is probably one of the top 5 moments in music history. It’s not just a rock guitar solo cascaded by some whoa-oh vocals, it gives you that trenchant feeling that if you’re not driving towards a who-the-hell-cares-where-we’re-going destination at 110mph that you absolutely should be. When listening to “Slave Ambient” its exceedingly clear The War On Drugs know exactly what this feeling means. For the purposes of labels it’s an indie-rock album, but conceptually its layers of understated hero worship present something much greater and infinitely more memorable.
That hero worship is on full display here, and fortunately it is exactly the right kind. When Granduciel smirks “I could hear you strolling through my mind” in the overpoweringly melodic “Your Love is Calling My Name,” immediate thoughts of Tom Petty waxing about all the bad girls of the San Fernando Valley while sitting on some random Ventura Blvd building-top come roaring into the subconscious. “Come to the City” would probably be at worst the 2nd best song on U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” and the unleashed “WHOO-OHs” colliding with that climbing, jangly melodic atmosphere instill images of Bono passionately carrying the legendary “Bad,” made even more sincere because that song was recorded before his full transcendence into pretentiousness manifested itself in an ego that can be seen from space. “Black Water Falls” has the ambience of “Bringing It All Back Home” era Dylan, the kind that transcribes the feeling he wrote the song in about 10 minutes but the emotion behind it as at a gut-check level, finding beauty in a complete lack of pretense. The enthralling piano hook of “I Was There” and its “come on baby let me IN I can show you something” pleadings and the rest of the album owe itself to that Jersey boy who transcended the notion that Joe Six-pack and his everyday life wracked in struggle is actually the perfect conceptualization of honor. It’s full on Springsteen aping at its finest, and the War on Drugs are one of a handful of a group of thousands who have attempted and actually pulled it off.
“Slave Ambient” is a bulletproof exercise in rock music execution and is impossible to dislike for anyone that has a clue what Americana rock actually is. We haven’t seen this type of transcendence since The Gaslight Anthem, the key differences here is “Slave Ambient” owes itself to a more refined atmospheric foundation vs. the delicious simplicity of well-executed punk. The ideals of Springsteen, Dylan, Petty, and U2 are in vast abundance, but in the end there’s this common thread of just flat-out going for broke. That’s what this album is; Springsteen called it a “last chance power drive,” Petty transcribed it through the personification of down-on-their-luck women, Dylan has a metaphor for every word in existence, and although Bono is not nearly as epic as he thinks he is, he absolutely knows what the concept should sound like. The War on Drugs manage to combine all of these elements in a mind-blowing singular package, and the result is a legitimate album of the year candidate.