A Review of, ‘A Deeper Understanding’, by The War On Drugs.
Hipster music publications will probably look back on their reviews of The War on Drugs in 10 years’ time and shudder with embarrassment. After all, here is a band so overwhelming enthralled by the calling cards and signatures of that old dinosaur we call rock music that they forgot to add the irony so apparently essential for any band wishing to bear the cool badge of indie.
With their 2014 release, ‘Lost in the Dream’, filled to tipping point with synths, strings and solos, the band seemed destined to be seen, critically at least, as a nostalgic and irrelevant nod towards a genre not exactly synonymous with credibility the first time around.
So what happened next? Well, ‘Lost in The Dream’, went on to top numerous end of year best of lists, the band signed with major label Atlantic and main man Adam Granduciel landed himself a movie star girlfriend (actually, he started seeing Krysten Ritter before everything blew up but that doesn’t tie in particularly neatly with the point I’m trying to make) All of this is completely irrelevant in relation to the quality of the record of course (It’s brilliant, for what it’s worth) but it’s certainly worth mentioning when you consider just how out of step with pop culture, ‘Lost in The Dream’, sounded upon its release in 2014.
Fast forward 3 years to the present day and The War on Drugs success would seem just as improbable now as it did then. Nothing much has changed with regards to what’s hot and what’s not in terms of guitar music during this time, which makes it all the more fitting that there’s not a lot about The War on Drugs music that’s changed either. New release, ‘A Deeper Understanding’, might be perceived by some as a bit of a sideways step, the sound of a band deliberately delivering more of the same in an effort to keep their new employers happy but that would be to do this record a great disservice. Yes, there are similarities; the glorious, slow burning crescendo of, ‘Holding On’, could easily be paralleled with LITD’s,’An Ocean In Between The Waves’, whilst opener, ‘Up All Night’, reworks the piano line from Bruce Hornsby’s, ‘The Way It Is’, in much the same way that, ‘Under The Pressure’, borrowed from Don Henley’s, ‘Boys of Summer’ but all of that is just window dressing. If anything, ‘A Deeper Understanding’, is even more expansive than its predecessor, with the subtle flourishes that made, ‘Lost in the Dream’, such a corker being slightly slower to reveal themselves. However, when subjected to repeated listens, ‘A Deeper Understanding’, proves itself to be equally as rewarding – if not more so.
Take, ‘Strangest Thing’, for example. On first spin, it’s practically impossible to see beyond the bombast. Mounds and mounds of synths and strings combine to create a sound so overblown that you almost feel bad for allowing yourself to become so immersed. The ultimate guilty pleasure seemingly, Granduciel appears just a Tommy and Gina away from inflicting irreversible damage before you realise that he’s way too smart, way too self-aware to allow his band’s excesses to become excessive and it’s this restraint, both lyrically and in terms of delivery, that prevents The War on Drugs music from degenerating into lifeless, AOR slop. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Granduciel is currently unparalleled when it comes to the tricky balancing act of creating easily accessible rock music that still credits its listeners with the intelligence to be able to think and interpret for themselves.
‘A Deeper Understanding’, isn’t perfect, don’t get me wrong. No one could accuse,’ Lost In The Dream’, of falling flat down the home stretch but one of the few criticisms aimed towards it was the decidedly frontloaded nature of the track listing. The hooks to Granduciel’s songs have always been much more about those infectious little guitar riffs rather than huge choruses but it’s noticeable that on the second half of, ‘A Deeper Understanding’, where these elements are sometimes simultaneously absent, that the end results are decidedly less inspiring than the tracks that came before.
Overall however, ‘A Deeper Understanding’, is a winner. Yes, it’s unlikely to earn The War on Drugs any new fans but at the same time, it’s even less likely to disappoint any of their current ones. The critics will undoubtedly reverse their stance on this band sooner or later but in the meantime, Granduciel can feel immensely proud and justifiably smug about the fact that he not only got the tastemakers to enjoy his charmingly unfashionable music but also that he got them to admit to it. Too late to deny it hipsters; it’s all down in black and white.
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