The War on Drugs: Wagonwheel Blues

Wagonwheel Blues daubs electronic and acoustic watercolor sketches of Americana from the Midwest prairie through the lonesome crowded west on to the beaches and rocky shores.

The War on Drugs

Wagonwheel Blues

Label: Secretly Canadian
US Release Date: 2008-06-17
UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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