It’s been three years since The War On Drugs left us open-mouthed with Lost In The Dream, an album that dominated critics’ end-of-year lists in 2014. Long Live Vinyl brings you an exclusive first online review of the follow-up, A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel has spent much of the three years that’ve passed since The War On Drugs’ stunning Lost In The Dream, which topped many critics’ end-of-the-year polls, working on its follow-up. It’s a record forged on both American coasts, from hundreds of hours of studio toil, and the Philadelphia frontman has used his time wisely. A Deeper Understanding is another year-defining powerhouse that simmers and crackles with all the tension and luminescent beauty of a summer storm ripping through the humid desert sky.
Electronic noise and a tumbling drum fill give way to the opening piano chords and Granduciel’s husky vocal on Up All Night; when the guitar arrives on a magic carpet of feedback and a motorik electronic drumbeat kicks in, it’s as if they’ve never been away – The War On Drugs in all their widescreen American road-trip glory.
Three minutes in, Granduciel winds up his guitar for the sort of gloriously simple, burrowing solo that made Red Eyes one of the best indie-rock tunes of the last decade. The opener stretches to six minutes of arms-aloft grandeur, posting their return in emphatic fashion.
On the more reflective Pain, we find Granduciel observing: “I met a man with a broken back/ He had a fear in his eyes that I could understand.” The guitar work is stratospheric, a grainy, fuzz-drenched solo taking over and tearing through the final two minutes of the track before dying away into post-coital ambient noise. Holding On is driven by a throbbing bassline and fizzing synth, its lyrics epitomising an album with transcience at its heart, that Granduciel says is about “watching yourself move between different versions of yourself and trying to either hold onto or figure out which one you’re more comfortable being”.
Halfway through Strangest Thing’s six minutes, 40 seconds, a massive snare-and-kick thunderclap ushers in a lacerating solo that fights a compelling battle with howling feedback and vibrato, before carrying us away to the outro with occasional vocal interjections cloaked in canyon-deep reverb… this is BIG music.
Light and shade arrives in the form of Knocked Down, with a gentle organ intro and Granduciel wistfully emoting, “Sometimes I can make it rain, diamonds in the night sky/ I’m like a child”. Nothing To Find reinstates the pace with a propulsive drumbeat and a sky-punching riff that duels devilishly with a wailing harmonica and sparkling organ motif. It’s utterly joyous stuff, all six minutes of it.
There’s more than guitar heroics and massive production, though, with Granduciel underlining his brilliance as a songwriter and his Dylan-esque lyrical ability. Thinking Of A Place, the first single from the album, stretches from lilting slide guitar via a false ending to a sprawling 11-minute epic, our man dreaming of “falling from the sky, coming down like running water”.
He digs deep one last time for the pleading You Don’t Have To Go, and it’s hard to think of another band producing such compelling guitar-centric rock ‘n’ roll music in 2017. The War On Drugs have already made one of the albums of the year.