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War on Drugs exceeds expectations on ‘A Deeper Understanding’

| Friday, September 8, 2017

1504820949-6adc41306a2bcaeDominique DeMoe | The Observer

The War on Drugs has returned to the music scene with a beautiful new iteration of its familiar dreamy rock sound. Honestly, I had a lot of trouble reviewing this record, as it’s a little bit difficult to place. There is only one song under the five-minute mark. Not to mention that my recent musical diet was heavy on LCD Soundsystem and hip-hop at the time I cracked open this album, so I was naturally worried I would be bored by a softer album that did not feature loud percussion or bold, thought-provoking lyrics. After a sleepy first minute, a kick drum comes in with a reverberating backing synth on album-opener “Up All Night” and I knew that I had nothing to worry about.

Like Granduciel’s previous efforts, “A Deeper Understanding” pays tribute to its rock predecessors. Specifically, this record heavily evokes ‘70s heartland rock acts like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger. (If your dad asks you to show him some of the cool music you are listening to these days, show him this album. Nine out of 10 dads will promptly buy the other three CDs.) Guitars shimmy in and out over smooth bass lines and simple drums. Granduciel’s voice, somewhere between a whisper and a groan, is an integral piece of the band’s unique sound. Granduciel soothes the listener without losing any of the emotion that his voice can carry so well.

Driving a car while listening to this album would be a sublime experience. “Thinking of A Place” would be a particularly fitting soundtrack to a morning drive through rural Indiana. At 11 minutes, this track would be absolutely inexcusable if it did not sound so gorgeous. It’s easy to lose yourself in the long and dreamy track, yet Granduciel always throws in a perfectly timed flourish to keep the listener interested. The following track, “In Chains,” turns up the pace on some of the musical themes on “Thinking.” Towards the end of the song, the piano cuts out and the drumming turns heavy, only to give way to a glorious harmonica solo, which in turn gives way to a brief piano solo. The War on Drugs will stun you with quick solo after quick solo on this album, yet it never feels self-indulgent.

“Clean Living” is perhaps the most subdued track on the whole album. It is also probably the only song on which the music seems to take a backseat to Granduciel’s vocals. A synthesizer buzzes out the same riff from the previous two tracks, while the frontman’s weathered voice conveys real passion and longing. “You Don’t Have to Go” is one hell of a way to conclude an album. Granduciel sounds like Tom Petty on this runaway train of a closing track. At the end of the song, all the instruments swell into a chaotic wave of sound that pleases the ears and tugs at the heartstrings.

At times, “A Deeper Understanding” can seem like one unrefined monolith that is not even particularly different from The War on Drugs’ previous albums. Granduciel is not trying to reinvent the wheel here. However, it is inarguable that there are moments of absolute glory on “A Deeper Understanding.” This record is so well produced that even on its most crowded tracks, every instrument adds some depth and beauty to the track. The result is an album that sounds simultaneously innocuous and sublime. “A Deeper Understanding” aims for the production heights of “Pet Sounds” and comes quite close. The lyrics may not be particularly captivating, and very few songs reach out and grab your attention, but each track feels like a countdown to the moment when all the pieces will converge and sweep you off your feet.

Artist: The War on Drugs

Album: “A Deeper Understanding”

Label: Atlantic Records

Favorite Track: “You Don’t Have to Go”

If you like: Iron & Wine, Slowdive, Father John Misty

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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