by Emilio Arias
Confined and impermeable are not words generally associated with good or accessible music. Yet that’s exactly the world in which Adam Granduciel and his heartland/roots-rock outfit, The War on Drugs, brings us into and locks us in with their newest album, A Deeper Understanding. Much like the title implies, we the listeners are brought down and happily trapped into a dark and expansive subterranean sonic world full of loss, longing, sadness and desperate hope. Raw, powerful, soaring and fun to listen to, A Deeper Understanding takes all that you’ve come to love about life on the road with The War on Drugs and drives you towards a new setting sun.
At this point in their career The War on Drugs have heard all the comparisons, for better or for worse; Dylan, Petty, Springsteen, Young. But where most groups would swing between bristling at being unable to escape the shadow of their influences, or grudgingly stay the course and adopt the sounds of their heroes, The War on Drugs has taken that legendary foundation and remade it distinctly their own. A sound which has been honed, sharpened and steeped to a nearly perfect cocktail on this album. Granduciel’s hallmark exuberance (just you try not to get pumped when he shouts his joyful woo! on their 2014 track, “Red Eyes”) isn’t found anywhere on A Deeper Understanding. But it isn’t needed to convey the powerful themes running through the album; the sonic highways on which the album roars down provides all the speed you need.
Where their 2014 breakthrough album Lost in the Dream reached a fever pitch with slow builds and driving guitars, A Deeper Understanding is a fever dream, slowly heating up and breaking out into a cold sweat as we observe from the corner of Granduciel’s hermetically sealed mental studio. If Dylan wrote of fantastic characters brought to life by acidic metaphors, and Springsteen crafted heroically vivid stories of Americana, The War on Drugs gives us detailed recollections through that hazy window of half remembered memory.
But metaphors and imagery aside, what truly shines on A Deeper Understanding are the expansive and vice-grip arrangements and melodies; acting as their own rich story, standing apart from Granduciel’s longing lyricism. It’s impossible not to lose oneself in the complex guitar solos of “Pain,” or the brightly unexpected xylophone in “Holding On,” which is made all the more impressive when realizing that Granduciel produced most of the studio instrumentation on his own. The wandering loneliness and longing so elemental to this album is heightened by Granduciel’s literal solitude in its creation.
The War on Drugs has never shied away from a grand sonic vision, and that ambition is no more obvious than on the length of the tracks themselves. Clocking in at a healthy 66 minutes across ten individually gorgeous tracks, A Deeper Understanding is an insular journey down a forgotten highway towards an uncertain future or leaving behind a haunted past. Able to toe the line between a sealed in studio album that traps us in the dark and beautiful recesses of its creator's mind, while simultaneously granting us visions of an open and beautiful world, the album succeeds where other records might fail; eliciting a sense of loss and pain while at once being authentic and real, and leaving you with a sense of hope and optimism that your destination will be worth the journey.