With its richly layered sounds of synthesizer keyboards and rock guitar, The War on Drugs embraces its classic-rock inspirations while generating a wholly unique sound of its own. Now on its fourth album and its first for major label Atlantic, The War on Drugs is set for commercial and critical success with “A Deeper Understanding.” Released in August, the album appeared on several year-end lists among the best of 2017, and you will hear few records that marry elements of Prince, Springsteen, Dylan, and Radiohead with such effortless grace.
Within its 66-minute length, the album offers just 10 songs, which means that nearly every song (with only one exception) runs over five minutes. For some bands, this would be an interminable indulgence, and one shudders to recall the many jam bands whose incessant noodling invites frequent use of the skip button. But the songs of “A Deeper Understanding” are immersive and often warm, inviting deep baths in their waves of sound.
The album opens with “Up All Night,” a perfect example of how the band balances seemingly discordant elements with surprisingly appealing results. In the midst of the song’s instrumental bombast, a guitar solo grinds up chords in a way that, on its own, might be quite annoying but manages here to blend into the overall pulse of the song. It’s a testament to Adam Granduciel, the band’s founding member and primary instrumentalist, that he can not only play several instruments with skill and depth but, like a cook in a well-stocked kitchen, whip up surprising combinations of flavors (or sounds, as the case may be).
“Pain” makes similar combinations and opens with lovely guitar chords and keyboard chimes. In tone, content, and voice, the song evokes Ryan Adams at a slightly higher register. (That’s a good thing.) The lyrics appeal to the listener’s sense of empathy and serves as a declaration of frustrated resolve: “I’ve been pulling on a wire, but it just won’t break.”
“Holding On” starts like a tune from an ‘80s synth band before incorporating a Springsteen-like glockenspiel and also somehow effectively incorporates slide guitar. It’s like a musical turducken. The song even contains a line about riding “down a crooked highway”! But it also evokes what could be a mission statement for the band itself: “When we talk about the past … / Did I let go too fast? / Was I holding on too long?”
Any rock and roll fan knows that the best bands steal from all the other best bands but in a way that makes the ones stealing sound better. The way Granduciel’s guitar erupts from the keyboard washes of “Strangest Thing” — a slower, more ethereal song — rivals “Purple Rain.” And, like Prince’s masterpiece, it’s an absolutely gorgeous song. “Am I just livin’ in the space between / the beauty and the pain?” Granduciel sings. The music tells you everything you need to know to answer his question.
After the hushed “Knocked Down,” side two gets back into high gear with the driving, textured sounds of “Nothing to Find.” Granduciel again shows his inspirations here with lost harmonica wails hiding behind the beat and some curious vocal inflections that can only be the result of many hours spent listening to Dylan records. Like the rest of the songs on the album, it’s a hybrid of sound and influences that are combined to create an entirely new entity, a new offering for the rock and roll canon.
The War on Drugs is a band that is fully worthy of the influences it wears on its sleeves. “A Deeper Understanding” is an entirely appropriate title for an album of emotional sensitivity and one that contains nods to many great musicians of the past but is itself an entirely new creation, a beautiful child of rock and roll.