Review: The War on Drugs’ ‘A Deeper Understanding’

Every generation needs its guitar hero, and unassuming frontman Adam Granduciel sets out to claim that mantle on The War on Drugs’ fourth album and major-label debut, A Deeper Understanding—a title that almost begs you to don the headphones and, well, “get into it.”
The Philadelphia-by-way-of-Oakland sextet originally sported fellow garage-band uberhero Kurt Vile, but this is now Granduciel’s baby. His glistening solos stud each of the 10 songs, all but one clocking in at over five and a half minutes. At the album’s center is the epic 11-minute-plus masterpiece, “Thinking of a Place,” its “An Ocean in Between the Waves” (from 2014’s Lost in the Dream). It recalls the heyday of Haight-Ashbury psychedelic shamans like the Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service in its depiction of a self-referential sonic universe: “And it feels so very real/Oh, it was so full of love.”
The War on Drugs’ clever name is not intended as a comment on Richard Nixon’s ill-fated campaign, but an open-ended moniker that allows the band to defy categorization and float in the nether region between country, folk, rock and prog, gently cascading in songs like the opening “Up All Night” and the single, “Holding On,” with its video of death, rebirth and transcendence in a story of a man who loses a loved one, only to discover their spirit in a frolicking pony. “I keep moving to changes,” sings Granduciel, echoing the music’s supple nature, “heart or hope.”
Upon first listen, the album floats like some chiming, languid Mark Knopfler guitar solo, but the more you delve into it, the deeper the understanding. The War on Drugs has apparently taken advantage of having a major-label budget to craft, hone and polish the album to an acid-soaked shine, giving listeners any number of aural rabbit holes to explore.
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Like “Holding On,” “Strangest Thing” also wonders about overstaying one’s welcome. “Am I just living in the space between/the beauty and the pain?” Granduciel asks in a Dylanesque plaint, as Anthony LaMarca’s slide guitar merges with the emotion of the lyrics and runs with it.
“Knocked Down” is delivered in muted tones, Granduciel dreaming of making it rain and “diamonds in the night sky… I’m like a child all alone, beaten up, free,” before the pace picks up on the Dire Straits-ish “Nothing to Find,” another song about the primal elements, in this case, fire and rain. “Oh, it always changes, I don’t understand/I keep moving through the edge and now/Comes a feeling I can’t stop/Emotionless and dead,” he sings as his jangling guitar and a swirling E Street Band-like organ spark a resurrection.
“In Chains” reiterates the album’s themes of freedom and captivity, love and loss, “gettin’ in the middle/and shining every light upon it.” Here’s where those “next Springsteen” comparisons begin to make sense, evoking Tunnel of Love-era Boss. You can also hear the mournful tone of Neil Young on the lovelorn “Clean Living,” a song that evokes After the Gold Rush as Granduciel persists, “I ain’t giving in/I know my way around it.”
The closing “You Don’t Have to Go” builds from heartache and longing to ecstatic guitar release before fading to black as Granduciel intones, “I can feel the change/Winds of love blow few/And they move through me/And they blow through you/And take you into the night…”
In a world of electronic music and superstar DJs who don’t play a note except on their laptops, is there still room for The War on Drugs’ traditional guitar/bass/drums approach, particularly one that so clearly acknowledges its debt to what came before them? With ’80s synths, metronomic drums and lush atmosphere, A Deeper Understanding rewards repeat listening. It’s the kind of album that should be listened to on vinyl, as you pore over the liner notes, clean your weed on its gatefold cover, roll one up and immerse yourself in Adam Granduciel’s soundscapes of the mind.
A Deeper Understanding has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Album category. The awards will be handed out on Jan. 28 on CBS.
2008 – Barrel of Batteries (EP)
2008 – Wagonwheel Blues
2010 – Future Weather (EP)
2011 – Slave Ambient
2014 – Lost in the Dream
2017 – A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel – vocals, guitar, harmonica
Anthony LaMarca – guitar
Robbie Bennett – keyboards
David Hartley – bass
Charlie Hall – drums
John Natchez – saxophone
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