Only a handful of artists and bands have a pristine discography. Few groups consistently produce albums that are instant classics. The list is short – The National, TV On The Radio, PJ Harvey, and Kurt Vile are some examples – with no Radiohead, Arcade Fire, or Pearl Jam to be found. Another band worthy of this exclusive list is The War On Drugs.
The Adam Granduciel-led collective have released some of the great records of the past decade. Their 2011 Slave Ambient LP is a beautiful, cerebral effort that amazed at every turn; their 2014 follow-up, Lost in the Dream, is a dazzling work of musical cinema. The War On Drugs today unveil their fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding. Can one of indie rock’s great bands of the 21st Century continue their streak, or has their major record label deal compromised their creativity and ingenuity? We share our First Impressions below.
Adam Granduciel is the guy you want with you on an epic road trip. The music he makes in The War on Drugs begs to be heard while driving with the car windows rolled down, wind whipping through your hair. A Deeper Understanding is the soundtrack for that trip. Queue up the opener (“Up All Night”) as you head out, and each of the album’s 10 songs will keep you company until you reach your destination. This album feels like a journey, sprawling and leisurely in scope and tempo.
While the first half is solid with several standouts soon to become classics (“Pain”, “Holding On” and “Strangest Thing”), the last half is stunning. A distinct change of tone arrives with the seventh track, “Nothing to Find.” It’s the same rush you get when driving to the beach and you detect the first whiff of salt air on the breeze. You’re not at your destination yet, but each clue that you’re closer heightens your anticipation. That tingling excitement permeates “Nothing To Find” as it segues into the album’s masterpiece, “Thinking of a Place.” It’s the album’s longest track (far longer than any song in their entire discography, beating “Show Me the Coast” from their Wagonwheel Blues debut LP by a full minute) for a reason. This is the apex. Even the lyrics evoke imagery of a journey in progress:
“I’m moving thru the dark / on a long black night
and I’m looking at the moon / and the light it shines
but I’m thinking of a place / and it feels so very real”
The journey doesn’t end there, though. “Clean Living” is the gentle “morning after” track that restores you after “Thinking of a Place” and “In Chains” leave you breathless. It veers into a hazy realm that’s more soft rain than sunlight on the album’s soothing closer, “You Don’t Have to Go.”
A Deeper Understanding is a gorgeous album. From start to finish, it offers a lush escape from the madness of the world. This is one of the best music journeys you will take this year.
There are only a handful of bands you can include on the “If I was stranded on a desert island, whose entire discography would you choose?” question. The War On Drugs is easily on that list. The consistent quality from The War On Drugs is sometimes mind-blowing. How can Adam Granduciel just keep getting it right on every single track?
No doubt there was hype and excitement when we heard A Deeper Understanding would be released this year. With each new single, the anticipation grew. After hearing the awesome tracks “Holding On” and “Strangest Thing” the thought was, “These must be the best on the album; it can’t get better than this.” “Nothing To Find” gets you moving with its upbeat urgency. Then there’s “Knocked Down” that has a jazz-like ethereal quality to it.
As each of the 10 tracks unfold on A Deeper Understanding, the last half doesn’t fall flat. It keeps going. This album is damn near perfection. Never in my life would I say an 11-minute song is a great idea, but damn it, Granduciel proves me wrong. “Thinking of A Place” is such a lush, beautiful song the length is not even an issue. It’s the standout track on the album next to “Strangest Thing”. The lyrics of the choices that each person can make in their life is what stands out:
“Come and take my hand, babe
There’s a turn in the road that we’ve been taking
Let it set you free
Because there’s a rhythm in the way that we’ve been moving
Yeah, there’s a darkness over there, but we ain’t going.”
We all have choices in life. We can choose light or darkness, and we can tear something or someone apart or build them up. The theme here is working through life’s issues and still coming out on the other side. On the brighter side, a better side even though pain, disappointment, loss and brokenness will come. It seems most of the songs center around tackling personal demons as well as keeping or losing relationships with others.
Not only has The War On Drugs’ overall sound grown and improved since Lost In The Dream, so has Mr. Granduciel’s songwriting. “In Chains” is mesmerizing with the addition of piano, and “Clean Living” is melodic yet with a palpable heaviness to it. “You Don’t Have To Go” is the laid-back yet introspective closer and the perfect end to this masterpiece.
A Deeper Understanding is easily one of the best releases of the year so far.
What is there to say about The War on Drugs that hasn’t already been said? Our collective admiration for their work is apparent from the number of appearances they have made on these pages over the years. And well deserved it is, too. Seldom (if ever) have they offered anything that fails to delight. A Deeper Understanding maintains the quality we’ve come to expect.
“Up All Night” and “Pain” open the album with rock a-plenty, providing a solid base for Granduciel’s superbly ’70-styled vocals. “Holding On” raises the tempo, as does “Nothing To Find”, complete with echoing harmonica. But sandwiched in between are the delightfully laid-back “Strangest Thing”, with melodic shades of Foreigner, and the surprise stand-out track of the album, if only for the closing piano phrases, “Knocked Down”.
It takes confidence to go against the grain of radio-ready music. While The War On Drugs has a history of doing things their own way, “Thinking Of A Place”, at just over 11 minutes in length, is a rejection of constraints. It’s a risk worth taking, making room for exquisite guitar work and a peppering of experimentation. If “Thinking Of A Place” were shorter, “In Chains” – at over 7 minutes – would be attracting comment. While there is a nod here to the prog-rock era of extended tracks, size definitely isn’t everything. The test is whether the music holds its audience. The answer to that question is a definitive ‘yes’.
There’s a beauty to penultimate track “Clean Living”. It’s a track to carry you away, if you let it. Let it. It’s worth it. As is the Dylan-esque closer, “You Don’t Have To Go”. Sadly, we do, but you can bet we’ll be back to listen again.
Have The War On Drugs raised the bar? Definitely. This is an album that we’d have no problem sharing with even the most critical of our music-loving friends.
The words gorgeous, breathtaking, and cinematic are far too frequently used, and I’m as guilty as the next music writer. But then arrives an album that just not merely defines these terms, but transcends them. That record is A Deeper Understanding, the new album by The War On The Drugs. It is like a great book – one that grabs your attention immediately and you cannot let it go even for a moment. It’s the record you want to take with you on occasions, whether it is on a road trip as Hollie suggests or even to the most private of rooms where you enjoy without interruption.
Opening the album with the calming “Up All Night” is a clever choice by Adam Granduciel, as it gently eases us into the widescreen technicolor of the album. Then the titanic blows arrive. Very few LPs can compete with the holy trinity that begins with “Pain”, which has Granduciel revealing his soul and inner turmoil of losing someone. Yet his pain is best reflected in the searing, truly awe-inspiring guitar solo that closes the song. The synth-driven “Holding On” follows, and in Future Islands fashion, TWOD have us chasing down a dream and the one we love. While there are many standout songs, “Strangest Thing”, might be the album’s pinnacle. This lush, hazy ballad is spellbinding, and one of the most endearing songs of recent memory.
Right behind it in terms of grandeur is “In Chains”. If music was indeed living cinema, this song would be it. The dissonant guitar and the quiet urgency are enthralling, and the ending is warm and inviting. No song matches “Thinking Of A Place” in terms of length, pace, and scope. Despite it being more than 11 minutes long, nothing can distract us from its poetic beauty.
Moments of immense intimacy are heard on the jazz-bar number, “Knocked Down”, and the tenderly melancholic “Clean Living”. Both evoke images of places we only see in dreams. Places where true solitude and peace can found. Granduciel’s lyrics on the latter aid in this imagery:
“I don’t want to have to make you
Show me how to do it
I’ve been looking all night
I want to wait in bed
Show me that you notice
It’s been a long time
I ain’t giving in, I know my way around it
I’ve been doing all right.”
Just as we get comfortable, TWOD amp up the intensity on the stunning rocker “Nothing To Find”. The song echoes a young Bruce Springsteen, and like The Boss, Granduciel has written an anthem for all us lost souls looking for meaning in our lives. Closer “You Don’t Have To Go” encapsulates the entire album. The track begins languidly then turns into an eye-opening, heart-pounding experience that leaves you stunned at the very end. When it’s over, there is only one thing left to do. Hit “repeat” because this is one of the albums of the year.
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