[18 August 2011]
After four years of planning and recording, Philadelphia’s the War on Drugs has released a follow-up to its 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues. Since the first album, Kurt Vile has departed the band to pursue his own music to great success with his two Matador albums. The man behind the War on Drugs, Vile’s good friend and touring companion, Adam Granduciel pursues a similar vein of American rock, fueled by obvious Dylan and Springsteen love, then rounded out with German and British influences, motorik and shoegaze. While Vile and Granduciel are obviously part of the same musical family, one hopes there is no professional jealousy between the two, since both are making something that sounds simultaneously familiar and fresh. The War on Drugs has come back strong with an album that complements the quirkiness of Kurt Vile’s latest with its own panoramic wisdom.
Slave Ambient takes the rambling road trip Americana sound of the first album and rounds it out with a bigger, more sophisticated sound. This direction was first apparent on last year’s (long) EP, Future Weather, which has earlier versions of two songs from Slave Ambient, including the single “Baby Missiles”. The reworking of “Brothers” from the EP to LP is emblematic of the shift in sound Granduciel has made. The earlier “Brothers” is a downbeat folky rambler; the album version is a bright jangle-pop road song. Granduciel’s impression of Dylan and his nasal drawl soars with the music in a more complex way than rehashing the stereotype of the mumbling folksinger and his guitar. In the titles of the two albums, from Wagonwheel Blues to Slave Ambient, we can get a clear sense of the War on Drugs’ aesthetic, which has finally come into its own. Granduciel mixes roots and electronics. Each song takes a single melodic line that one could imagine Granduciel playing alone with a guitar, and then builds it out, not with more complex composition, but sophisticated layering of sound.
Another way to explain what Granduiciel is up to is by comparing him with another obvious inspiration: the Boss. Many of the tracks sound like scraps of Bruce songs, from the standout mumbly ballad, “I Was There”, to a pair of “Dancing in the Dark”-inspired tracks, “Your Love Is Calling” and “Baby Missiles” (another track reworked from the EP, though in this instance minimally so). Springsteen inflated folk-rock to operatic arena-sized proportions, but the War on Drugs makes it big otherwise. Rather than dramatic arcs, Granduciel’s songs have a repetitive droning structure, moving back and forth from verse to chorus, without bridges or stories, to make non-monumental classic rock. But what the songs lack in dynamics is supplied by texture: the songs are really thick.
The centerpiece of the album is a perfect example of this demolished monolithic rock, a center without a center. “Come to the City” is an anthem you can’t sing along with, an arena song for an audience of loners. The heavy driving drums, so simple they could be played by a machine if they weren’t hit so hard, give the song epic proportion that an airy, expansive synth complements. Granduciel stretches his voice out in its upper range, drawing out his syllables, to sing an abstract travel song: “Lead me back to the place I’m from / Past the farms and debris…I’ve been rambling.” The lyrics also follow the pattern of emptying out the center. Granduciel always sings from his point of view, but there is nothing concrete, only the barest of images on these songs from the heartland.
Slave Ambient is a well-crafted and euphoric album, but somehow it doesn’t have much that sticks out. That’s not to say there are no catchy melodies—each song has a catchy part—but like a long roadtrip, the images blend together. But this is the point: the War on Drugs, not slave ambient, but folk ambient, takes the bare structure of a folk song and drags it out, curving the linear into a circular pattern you can curl up inside. Granduciel’s version of Americana fits perfectly with our day when everything has been done to death; all that’s left are the postures and the barest of sounds, the debris to piece together like a quilt of warm, humming music that makes you feel just so.