The wagon-wheel effect is a stroboscopic illusion which tampers with one’s grasp of the persistence of vision. It suggests that, gazing through a wagon or stagecoach wheel, one is watching a film when they are actually watching the world turn from a satellite. It distorts your perceptions, makes you think progressing forward is actually going backwards, staying still, or slowing down and vice versa for the reverse motion. It’s an apposite metaphor for any of our current series of extended mishaps, like perhaps the War on Drugs, which is also the name of an atmospheric set of sonic explorers who have just released their debut album entitled Wagonwheel Blues (using a compound portmanteau of the aforementioned wheel).
Wagonwheel Blues daubs watercolor sketches of Americana from the Midwest prairie through the lonesome crowded west on to the beaches and rocky shores. It too has its own wagon-wheel effects, as the words of its songs reciprocate, recycle, and reappear in various forms throughout the verses, reproportioning its themes (“Go meet me on the highways and the one-way streets”...“I’ll be confusing the highways for an one-way street”). It also distorts its own forward momentum, breaking off of its roots cathexis for dips into electronic green screen utopias and post-rock studio tweakings. Oddest of all may be the band’s vantage point: metropolitan Philadelphia. Though its Fairmount Park is a rare urban example of anachronistic greenery, Philly hardly seems the best city from which to wax theosophical on the pastoral.
Essentially a twosome comprised of Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, who split their time between a spare closet’s worth of instruments, the War on Drugs makes music about a changing America and a changing earth, as well as changes in inner space. The inclusion of both harmonica and political allegory on an album will guarantee them comparisons to Dylan. And though the War on Drugs don’t fight this comparison (they often invite it with the occasional psychedelic wanderin’-man claptrap lyrics), they do supersede the exhausting line of flaccid imitators in favor of a new chemical mixture of classic rock, post-rock, and possibly even a little bit of that brand of late ‘80s pop, where every rock tune had a keyboard or synth backup (Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, etc.).
It’d also be quite tempting to draw a lineage from Wagonwheel Blues to the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. But what Neon Bible smothers you with in overtones, Wagonwheel Blues at least introjects via cryptic passages, anxious travelogues, and tales of interpersonal disconnection. As such, it’s probably a truer tale of 21st century alienation than the Arcade Fire’s didacticism. Its path to get there is less grandiose and more intimate (and more abstruse), full of nervous energy that screams for release at every turn. Part of this is achieved via the monotonal bass, sometimes levying itself a nomadic drone, a kind of room-tone temperament of lingering sound. As a result, songs like the 10-minute “Show Me the Coast” plead for climax.
Instead, the album is wagon-wheeled. Its major peak comes in its first track. Everything after is elegiac denouement, passive reflection, or swirling clouds of wonderment. The album’s finale, “Barrel of Batteries”, is broken and opaque, purposefully recorded muddy and frothing with faux grit like something off of Vile’s Ariel-Pink styled solo LP. It’s an incidental afterthought of a song, but fitting to the War on Drugs’ interpretive cartography.
Fittingly then, Wagonwheel Blues opens with a song of defeat and surrender. “Arms Like Boulders” starts things off with a processional exodus of marching band drums, loose and wavering guitars, and a powerfully vibrant harmonica part. It’s the album’s strongest song, one whose poetic flourishes could be widely applied to all levels of disappointment, like an old hymnal asking you to humble yourself before God. Except in this world, “God is a catapult waiting for the right time / to let you go into the unknown/ just to watch you hold your breath / and surrender your fortress”. A fortress which, Granduciel tells us later, is used to chase squirrels and for “making sure they know this is your kingdom”.
Granduciel, credited with vocals, at times seems the unlikely three-way gene-spliced spawn of Dylan, Petty, and Animal Collective’s Avey Tare. Appropriately then, Wagonwheel Blues‘s anthems are rugged and blue-collar, but observed through a technologic modern mindset. Every strummed note on the album is juxtaposed by a meditative electronic sequence somewhere, like the shimmering chords of “There Is No Urgency” or the processed piano of “Reverse the Charges”, which sounds remote and refined, not unlike the similarly distant strands of Faust’s “Das Meer”. Wagonwheel Blues‘s strongest suit of all may be that it is refreshingly uncynical. Just what part of Philly do these boys come from, anyway?
“Arms Like Boulders” ends by proclaiming “Now’s the time / to wrap your ears around the sound / of your train comin’ ‘round / when you will have to lay everything down”. As you’re ready to submit, the sound of that train rolls right on in with the chugging of drum machine rhythms on “Taking the Farm”. It’s an invigorating locomotive tract, knee-slappingly catchy in fact. A close second best on the album. There’s a bit on an environmental treatise in it too, with Granduciel talking about feeling terrestrial changes in his knees, in the ozone, in the streets, and in the dirt. It’s been making him anxious, all the “chopping down treetops” and “digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea”. Elsewhere, he tells of how he “put a bounty on a mountain range” and how all the “plates are shifting under land”. At one point, he even implores us to “set your sites to green”.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call this some masked treaty to address the climate crisis before it turns the earth into a giant deforested dust bowl where covered wagons are the new luxury sedans, but the War on Drugs definitely bare a strong kinship to the earth. They’re a band fascinated by America: its music, its history, its spiritual struggle to come to terms with itself and its uncanny ability to imagine itself moving backwards when it can’t stop going forward.