The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

The War on Drugs have 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.

The War on Drugs

A Deeper Understanding

Label: Atlantic
US Release Date: 2017-08-25
UK Release Date: 2017-08-25

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.