The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding – Album Review by Killian Laher
After their breakthrough 2014 album Lost In The Dream which propelled Adam Granduciel and co to critical acclaim, it’s fair to say the follow up has been eagerly anticipated. Talk of 11 minute tracks (Thinking Of A Place) may have worried those pulled in by more compact fare, such as Red Eyes (on Lost In The Dream). Although only one track here clocks in under five minutes (Knocked Down), if anything this album is more accessible than its predecessor. Gone are the ambient rumbles of old or any of their more stripped-down moments. What we get in its place is a unified, luxurious sound. It’s a sound that evokes late eighties MOR synth-rock, such as Don Henley, Dire Straits , albeit with a 2017 sheen. Sounds considered as uncool as f**k. So why then does this album work?
Simply put: the songs. The album is brimming with in-car driving anthems, right from the opener Up All Night. A couple of seconds of scratching leads into a two chord keyboard led track. It sounds almost cheesy at first but by the time you get to the heavily treated guitar solo, you’re sucked in. If it’s possible to perform air-synth, you’ll be doing it before the song ends. Similarly Holding On is pure pop, or what used to be known as pop/rock, distilling Springsteen at his most uptempo, while Nothing To Find goes full on John Hughes’ soundtrack by way of the Dire Straits Brothers In Arms sound. These tracks are enjoyable if a little throwaway. A whole album like this would be exhausting but there’s far more to it. Further on, the uptempo anthem In Chains sounds entirely like a War On Drugs song, with all the key ingredients, fast tempo, anthemic moments, well played instruments without overtly evoking the past.
The band perform well when they take it down a notch. The album contains a couple of what can only be described as power ballads. That is, power ballads as reimagined in a latter day Ryan Adams style. Pain opens with some simply gorgeous rainy day eighties guitar with a background organ that pitches the track as potentially the coolest song Bruce Hornsby never quite wrote. And that brooding, melancholy guitar sound is utterly addictive, making this track an unquestionable highlight of the album. Strangest Thing initially evokes mid eighties Foreigner of ALL things, yet to paraphrase the song title, you start remembering, God, how good Ryan Adams’ Gold album sounded on its first few listens, the keyboards are, if anything… warm, and holding back the electric guitar till more than halfway through just leaves your ears devouring it when it arrives. Knocked Down is relatively subdued in comparison to the rest of the album, a downcast simple plea where Granduciel sings “I wanna love you but I get knocked down”, but this comes off as a little under-written compared to the other songs, and is relatively brief at less than four minutes.
The band slow down completely for the final two tracks. The first of these, Clean Living opens with the same chord progression as The Velvet Underground’s Heroin but production-wise it’s worlds apart, turning itself back towards the mid eighties. They finish with the most Dylan sounding track here, You Don’t Have To Go, this one sounding like Dylan in his Daniel Lanois phase, without his aged croak.
As for the aforementioned Thinking of A Place? A definite centrepiece. It opens with shimmering synths, which spill into an insistent, luxurious groove with late period Roxy Music guitar fills. The track builds gradually, urgent and impassioned at times, yet knowing the precise moment (after the first guitar solo) to dial back the intensity. There’s so much going on here, steel guitar, harmonica, celeste, yet no one instrument takes over, and each listen reveals further details, be it the acoustic guitar strumming away low in the mix, piano arpeggios, fingers sliding over frets. But above all an addictive melody, which will follow you around as you go about your day.
Yes, everything you know is wrong. In 2017 indie rock is sufficiently mainstream that AOR/MOR is the new indie. The sound of this album is beautifully crafted, evoking a previous era perfectly without sounding dated. Sure, there’s no actual edge or danger here, and this sort of ear candy will probably wear thin in 12 months’ time but not before it dominates discerning music fans listening for the forthcoming months. This is the sort of stuff punk and grunge tried to kill off. A near miss. Resistance is futile. Succumb.
1. Up All Night
3. Holding On
4. Strangest Thing
5. Knocked Down
6. Nothing To Find
7. Thinking of A Place
8. In Chains
9. Clean Living
10. You Don’t Have To Go