‘A Deeper Understanding’ is a worthwhile journey
September 8, 2017
“Lost in the Dream” is a fitting title for the fourth album released by The War on Drugs. On that album, back in 2014, the Philadelphia-based rock outfit embarked on a blurred journey through shoegaze, alt-country and ambient electronica with lyrics just as hazy to go along. It sounds like a band, but the album is more or less an odyssey through the mind of frontman, Adam Granduciel. That odyssey earned The War on Drugs widespread acclaim for “Lost in the Dream,” landing the album on or on top of many year-end best lists.
If all that introspective wandering did Granduciel any good on “Lost in the Dream,” then the logical next step would be to delve deeper. So spawns the equally fitting title of the band’s fifth album, “A Deeper Understanding,” released August 26 for Atlantic Records. The album finds Granduciel doing just that, drawing from the band’s unique blend of sound to craft a beautifully detailed album.
Rarely do songs on “A Deeper Understanding” stray from a central groove or melodic idea; it seems like Granduciel catches an idea and dwells on it endlessly, letting a song expand but never stray from what made it remarkable in the first place. That’s a small line to tiptoe, but Granduciel walks it with confidence. It’s one thing to make a groovy four-minute rock record, but another to keep a listener’s attention on that record for five, six, seven, even 11 minutes. That would sound obsessive, narcissistic even, for almost any other band.
But the War on Drugs has made a living off of that model. With just ten tracks, “Lost in the Dream” clocks in at just over an hour. Similarly, “A Deeper Understanding” stretches 10 tracks over 66 minutes. But while “Lost in the Dream” was built upon broad ambient fades and the shimmer of delayed guitars, “A Deeper Understanding” capitalizes on smaller idiosyncrasies: the dingy descent of a glockenspiel in “Holding On,” a fleeting shuffle of hi-hats in “Up All Night,” the silvery synth riff in “Nothing to Find.”
However, that isn’t to say that “A Deeper Understanding” doesn’t go big. Eleven of those 66 minutes come from “Thinking of a Place,” the band’s lengthiest song to date. The slow roll of a drum set and layered electronics keep the song churning along, but Granduciel’s eclectic production and attention to detail make the journey worthwhile. The modulating synths that form the song’s backbone sound psychedelic enough to go on a Tame Impala record. Meanwhile, the comparatively brief appearances from slowly arpeggiating keys, bending steel guitar and the squeaks of a harmonica make the song fit for the open road, a tribute to the vagabond songwriters of Granduciel’s inspirations.
Critics often compare Granduciel to Springsteen, but his reflective tone throughout much of “A Deeper Understanding” likens him more closely to Dylan; a nasally rambler keen of the world around him, but more interested in digging deeper into his own mind. The Dylan influence is most apparent on subdued tracks like “Strangest Thing,” where Granduciel comes up with some of his most incisive lines to date: “I recognize every face / But I ain’t got everything I need / If I’m just living in the space between / The beauty and the pain.”
Still, the exclamatory choruses and swooping guitars of songs like “Holding On” and “Nothing to Find” bring Springsteen back to mind. In fact, those upbeat moments are where The War on Drugs is, and always has been, at its best. The Americana-twinged synth rock, no matter how complex that sounds, is best when simply rocked out. Granduciel has never been one to let sophistication get in the way of a jam, and that attitude serves him well here. While “Nothing to Find” borrows the energetic framework of “An Ocean In Between the Waves,” a highlight from “Lost in the Dream,” adding glimmering synths and subtle vocal harmonies to the mix, giving a brighter, more saturated sound to the track.
Some songs here do have strong hints from “Lost in the Dream,” but Granduciel is careful to only carry along elements that fit the new project. You can hear them in the rushing guitar build of “Nothing to Find,” the swell of baritone sax in “In Chains” and the tumbling chord progression of “Strangest Thing.” Those may sound minute, but this is an album about details. If “Lost in the Dream” flourished on its panoramic sound, “A Deeper Understanding” is a celebration of the details within that wide frame; the specks of beauty among the vastness.
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