Change was in the air. You could hear it on A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs’ previous LP released in 2017: a shift towards something a bit lighter and a bit more synthetic. The harsher shoegaze textures of the band’s past were now being phased out in favour of synth pads and old-timey organs, imbuing the folky and Americana traces of Adam Granduciel with a prickly fight between modernisation and traditional sounds. It seems as though modernisation won out, as can be heard on the slick stylings of the band’s new album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore.
For the curmudgeonly old school rock and roller who grumbles about the integration of technology into their beloved genre, I Don’t Live Here Anymore would sound terrifying on paper – drum machines, synthesisers, a greatly reduced emphasis on guitar. It’s a shift that redefines the sound of the almost two-decade old band, and as we all know, change can be scary.
Maybe that’s why the acoustic strumming of ‘Living Proof’ is placed as the album’s first track. The folky number gives listeners a lifeline to the heartland rock that The War on Drugs like to dabble in from time to time before they get submerged in the new wave sounds that the rest of the album embraces in full. But even here Granduciel prepares you for what’s to come: “I’m always changing, love overflowing”.
The predominant feeling of the music is that of drive: ‘Wasted’, ‘Harmonia’s Dream’, and ‘Victim’ all leap forward with twitchy energy that keeps even the longer songs moving quickly. Interspread through those propulsive numbers are lyrics dealing with romance, compromise, lost dreams, confusion, and moving forward. It’s the latter theme that comes back time and again, whether it’s through the album’s title, the constant surge of its arrangements, or the lyrics that find Granduciel making strides towards a future that’s not always guaranteed.
The only time the album ever really slows down is towards its finale on the song ‘Rings Around My Father’s Eyes’. The longing and wistfulness that reoccurs throughout the album is given its most sedated platform here, something that would have been overpowering had it not been reserved for a brief respite. When ‘Occasional Rain’ kicks in with its pop-like beat, it becomes clear that despair only comes when you slow down. If you keep running, you’ll always find something new.
It might be relatively new to The War on Drugs, but this kind of keyboard-heavy synth pop-adjacent indie rock isn’t new to the rest of us. If this is right in your auditory sweet spot, then perhaps there’s always room for another band to pay homage to the very specific time and place that this album’s music references. But if you’ve heard Destroyer’s Have We Met, Alvvays’ Antisocialites, The Strokes’ The New Abnormal, or even something more mainstream like The Weeknd’s After Hours, this album’s sound is going to be familiar to you already. It’s well done, but also well-trod at this point.
Often it’s the textures on this album that do the heavy lifting. More so than on any of the band’s previous albums, keyboards are layered to create ever-escalating washes of sounds and atmosphere that aren’t explicitly musical. On nearly every song of I Don’t Live Here Anymore, there’s a conversation happening between the twinkling synthesisers and the more explicitly rock instruments like electric guitar, piano, and drums. The way that they’re all woven in makes for the album’s greatest success, a constant push and pull between futuristic electronica, throwback ’80s new wave, and driving modern indie rock.
That’s what I Don’t Live Here Anymore provides a fantastically produced, inedibly performed, occasionally transcendent work of ’80s-indebted synth-rock. Is it as emotionally affecting as some of their previous albums? I would argue no, but when it does hit those notes of loneliness and uncertainty, they hit as powerfully as any words that Granduciel has ever put to page. Is it yet another indie rock musician paying respect to the once-maligned, now-beloved style of peak synthesisers-era new wave? You bet. Is there still a distinctive touch from Granduciel that makes it quintessential, unmistakably The War on Drugs? Absolutely.