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Album review: The War On Drugs 'A Deeper Understanding'

A Deeper Understanding

It has been almost four years since The War on Drugs released their critically acclaimed milestone of a third album Lost in the Dream, the record shifted the notch for the band and moved them from well regarded semi-obscurity to the major leagues. Over the course of their three albums The War On Drugs – in particular leading man Adam Granduciel – grew a sound that gained both praise and criticism in its stylistic embracement of classic rock.

The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and the later work of Bob Dylan, although overused, hold fair merit and it is these grandiose elements that set The War On Drugs apart from the current crop of Dream Pop and No Wave bands who have been heavily prevalent in the past decade – especially with their tendencies to shy away from the former extravagance of this genre. However, in many ways The War On Drugs do hold similarities to their peers and it is often the stigma of the ‘classic rock’ comparisons that shape people’s judgments on the band’s sound rather than the reverb laden, synth heavy and experimental music itself.

This placement of purgatory between stadium rock and contemporary indie puts The War On Drugs in a unique position, one that allows them the freedom to swerve away from the curve, pull influence from both the past and the present and embrace genres which are often frowned upon. However it also leaves the issue that pulling too far could alienate the band from what set them apart in the first place.

Following on from this could only ever put Granduciel in a difficult position, A Deeper Understanding is their first release for major label Atlantic after several years on Secretly Canadian and, although it is his fourth full length as The War On Drugs, the release holds all of the expectations and anticipation related to a notoriously tricky second album.  

Opening track ‘Up all night’ provides a somewhat false impression for what is to come, especially in terms of pace. With its electronic pulse and weaving percussion sat jarringly parallel to the keyboards and vocals before finding a sense of syncopation midway through. It is a tightly packed track full of excitement, a mishmash of sounds and instruments merge into a magnificent whole. The Wurlitzer introduction to ‘Knocked Down’ is emotive enough to warrant an entire album of its own even before heading into a truly stunning stripped-back chorus. However the extended outro to ‘Nothing To Find’ with its lead guitar and rock radio friendly “whoo’s” perhaps don’t give much in terms of counter to ‎Mark Kozelek infamous “beer commercial lead-guitar” quote.  

It would be hard for even the most cynical of listeners to deny that not only the songs, but every individual sonic element from which they are formed sound beautiful. It’s clear that countless hours of scrutiny must have been spent on perfecting this work; the recordings have no digital harshness but by no means lose fidelity, you’ll find no slapdash contemporary approaches to the arrangements and production, everything is thought out and ‘fuller’. Instruments have been picked out through trial and error to find the fitting piece and not simply through obvious, lazy or expected choices which vary from a lone Casio to an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestration.

A song such as ‘Pain’ ends with modulated synths to counteract the fuzzy guitar that sit abruptly behind it and help it transition into the Chariots of Fire era Vangelis arpeggio of ‘Holding On’, which you are quickly distracted from by the classic rock lead guitar line, the guitar is then replaced by accented bells and strings which on the first five listens you don’t even notice. This all happens in the space of 30 seconds and you could take a snapshot like this at any point on the record and discover a intricate web of layers. A Deeper Understanding is endlessly detailed.

The lyrics across the album are strong but often embedded so much into Granduciel’s Dylan-esque drawl that it becomes distracted from the content and although seemingly a cheap comparison to make the similarity in vocal characteristics are too noticeable for this not to be made. The album’s 10 tracks average around the six-minute mark which is no mean feat for both Granduciel and listener, but ultimately each is rewarding with their true grandeur not being witnessed until several minutes in. ‘Thinking of a Place’ reaches a staggering 11 minutes 10 seconds, within which it works through segments as a symphony would through movements, maintaining motifs and fragments of lyrics while instruments and textures shape the scenes on which Granduciel’s lyrical narrative embeds itself.  

It is impossible to deny that A Deeper Understanding is a spectacular sounding record, luscious and dream like, filled to the brim with details and hidden intricacies. But like a dream, it is difficult to remember much about the album once it has finished. It is an album clearly set to top many end of year polls and further propel The War On Drugs to main-stage headliner status, and deservedly so. But in truth, where the album supplies graft and craftsmanship rarely seen anymore and embodies the former glories of rock music in abundance it occasionally misses the mark with its purpose. An impeccably detailed sounding record, with the detail sometimes overpowering the substance.