For me, there’s only one way to listen to Tom Petty, on the road. I was raised that way. Sure, Talking Heads or The Police soundtracked dinner and family game night, but when my Deadhead of a dad ushered me into the car, it was Tom Petty who’d serenade us all the way to soccer practice. 

“Damn the Torpedoes,” “Full Moon Fever” and especially “Echo”—I knew those records inside and out. They were the type of album I always heard all the way through, as I stared out the window at the golden shade of streetlamps zipping by on the way home from New York City. My mother and sisters usually drifted off into their own golden slumbers, so it was just us boys: me, my dad and the Heartbreakers.

The experience of listening to music on a car stereo—whether from the tape deck or radio—has an immediacy that’s lost in the iPod age. I had no idea what the names of the songs were (ok, they weren’t hard to guess, this is don’t-bore-us-skip-to-the-chorus Petty after all), giving them an economy of ignorance, a preciousness out of fleetingness. Every now and then, I hear a song that instantly transports me back to 2:00 a.m. in the backseat of the old Goodrich-mobile on an anonymous interstate. 

Funnily enough, this year has brought a return of the long drive anthem. Two o’ clock in the morning on an anonymous interstate is exactly how one should listen to the new album from the War on Drugs, “Lost in the Dream."

It’s more than the profound pleasantness of heyday FM radio that the War on Drugs capture and make their own. It’s the yearning for a distant past that we think we’ll reach if we just take the road far enough in pursuit of a long-lost lover who alone holds the power of our rejuvenation. Sometimes I think that every radio hit released in the 1980s riffed on the nostalgia of heartbreak—“Love Is a Long Road,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Boys of Summer”—and I can only imagine listening to them with the window rolled down and the horizon calling my name.

This is the legacy that the War on Drugs have inherited. The road is the medium on which life’s journey plays out, whether lost on back streets looking for the address your new girlfriend gave you, or speeding down the highway away from the wreckage of a crash-and-burn relationship. The sound that Adam Granduciel and company have cultivated over the years is so drenched in gauzy guitar reverb and “Born in the USA”-era Springsteen that they’ve pioneered a new genre, dubbed “bossgaze” by a puckish Pitchfork staffer.

“Lost in the Dream,” their third album, continues this tradition of updating Springsteen and Petty. It begins with an out-of-place ticking that quickly builds into hazy rumble, like the sound an old clunker makes when you put keys in the ignition for the first time after a long winter. Listening to the War on Drugs after their three year hiatus is similarly panic inducing. Their 2011 record “Slave Ambient” sounded so good, ran so well, that I wondered if they might need an oil check after so long of a break. I needn’t have worried. Thirty seconds in, the struggling mass of sound suddenly resolves into the memorable piano riff that drives the opener, “Under the Pressure.” Thirty seconds in, and “Lost in the Dream” is running beautifully.

Granduciel has gained the reputation of a perfectionist, which explains the delay between albums. He hasn’t been wasting his time, however. This record, despite its lo-fi pretensions, might be the best-produced album since Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” The length of each song—seven clock in at over five minutes—allows the band to sprawl out on the open highway, giving them room to both maneuver U-turns and build chilling crescendos. The piano in “Under the Pressure” inconspicuously drops out three minutes in, replaced by a horn section that gives the song enough soul to ride out the remaining five minutes in a happy groove. As Granduciel alters the melody slightly, singing “lying on a hill / dancing in the rain / hiding in the back / loosening my grip,” you can feel your hips move in the driver’s seat before the refrain bursts out of him. The same goes for “Red Eyes,” which, inspired by the euphoric build-up of “Dancing in the Dark,” feels like a car merging onto a highway right as Granduciel gives a life-affirming exclamation and the guitars explode into an instantly classic riff.

These moments of brilliance, though sprinkled throughout the album, do run the risk of getting lost in the dream themselves. They sound so natural, so utterly essential, that they slide into the background, biding their time until the alert listener stumbles on them. Such is Granduciel’s craft, taking an era of rock radio not known for its subtlety and drawing out the complex world of human relationships and emotions on an ethereal, druggy highway.

Last summer, as my dad and I were driving back from a late-night concert, we discussed the various tatters that had become our lives. He moved to grab a comforting CD—presumably Petty—but I suggested we give my music a chance. As we forged forward, awash in streetlamp amber, I put on the War on Drugs. We sat silently, moving endlessly, nowhere behind us, nowhere ahead. The road is life, and this is its soundtrack.