Cosmetically, the War on Drugs seem a perfect representation of indie music in the 2010s, an era where our appetite for reverb-drenched dream pop has shown little sign of abating despite years of hyper-exposure. Along with the Beach Houses, Wild Nothings, and Lower Dens of the world, the Philadelphia-based six-piece led by Adam Granduciel carry the torch impeccably in this regard.
Yet it is the War on Drugs’ clear appreciation of classic rock that seems most unusual in this day and age. From the obvious Bob Dylan comparisons that arise from Granduciel’s gravelly voice and harmonica solos, to the occasional bursts of Hendrix-style psychedelic guitar, the band draws upon different pasts in music history than many of their contemporaries.
Now, I went through my classic rock phase in high school just like so many others, but it’s safe to say throwbacks to that era are hardly a safe bet for making good, innovative music these days. That the War on Drugs draw upon their influences and combine them with their own particular sound so beautifully is a testament to their skill as musicians. It is also a justification for the massive critical attention they have received thus far in their career, particularly since 2014’s Lost in the Dream.
A Deeper Understanding, the band’s fourth album overall and their first with Atlantic, matches its predecessor in vision, expansiveness, and nuance. Though it mostly employs the same aesthetic calculus characterizing much of their output, subtle differences in mood and pace distinguish the record. On paper, an 11-minute lead single like “Thinking of a Place” might suggest a grandiose, majestic epic in the vein of “Under the Pressure”. Certainly, it does have a kind of sweeping yet weary romance to it.
However, “Thinking of a Place”, like so much of the new album, is most notable for its patience. It does not barrel forward with the fevered delirium of, say, “Red Eyes” or “Baby Missiles” (few of these songs do, though “Holding On” perhaps comes closest). Rather, “Thinking of a Place” takes its time and never grows any larger than it needs to be to convey its emotional content. The smallest touches, like when the music all but drops away save for its moody synth undertones, only to quietly reemerge moments later, carve out a palpable inner world. The melodies land with grace and subtlety, and while it’s easy to miss the way they evolve over time, tuning into the song’s minute frequencies is deeply gratifying and affecting.
Highlights like these abound throughout the record. The first number, “Up All Night”, gallops along with dense, rolling percussion and stabs of piano. While you could hardly be blamed for thinking of the guitar solo as an obsolete art, there is an irresistible pleasure in hearing Granduciel tear through his pristine arrangements with fuzzy, distorted phrases, as he does here. If he sounds like Jimi Hendrix or even Don Henley one moment, he can easily sound like St. Vincent another. And though A Deeper Understanding is a relatively subdued affair overall, moments like the chorus of “Strangest Thing” prove the War on Drugs can summon Goliath riffs when necessary.
“In Chains”, arriving near the end of the album, is perhaps the clearest successor to Lost in the Dream‘s “Under the Pressure”. Of the five singles released ahead of the album’s release, it’s surprising that this wasn’t one of them, especially considering the War on Drugs clearly do not consider a seven-minute runtime disqualifying. Structured around a somber, poignant piano motif, “In Chains” is an extended meditation on love and connection with little regard for boundaries and limitations. It captures an ephemeral emotional peak, yet feels as though it stretches endlessly. In this sense, it competes only with “Thinking of a Place” as the true heart of the album.
A Deeper Understanding represents another step forward for the War on Drugs, and is among their most ambitious, consistent, and emotionally searing works yet. Think what you will about the rock music tropes they evoke, but there is an undeniable pulse of both urgency and mystery that runs through the album. This band has always had a way of conjuring sweepingly romantic images of the open road, but A Deeper Understanding finds them as desolate and far from home as they’ve ever been, surrounded by vast American deserts, desperately pursuing some means of emotional or spiritual survival. This album proves both an antidote to and an artifact of that elusive search.