The War on Drugs
A Deeper Understanding
To love The War on Drugs, to gain a deeper understanding like the title of their latest album suggests, is to constantly return to the echoing canyons of dreamy classic rock they’ve spent over a decade now forming.
Frontman and principal songwriter Adam Granduciel is a true rock and roll lifer, the kind that obsesses over the studios and recording gear used on his favorite records just as much as lyrics or players. The Dover, Massachusetts, native—and current Philly staple—claims to have spent several hermetic fifteen-hour days camped in the studio with the rest of the band to properly record and summon the perfect sounds for the fourth War on Drugs album.
Upon first listen, the obvious painstaking effort placed into A Deeper Understanding is not lost. Much like the glistening, neon glow of its predecessor Lost in the Dream, A Deeper Understanding is heavy with gorgeously detailed classic rock pulled like taffy into a gauzy, Starry Night state. Granduciel is the husky voiced narrator guiding us through this murk, casually firing off incendiary guitar solos as flares to better illuminate complicated feelings of anxiety, isolation, and longing.
This rich, thick sound is great for a few songs, but by “Knocked Down,” the record settles into a lulled state where the obvious bells and whistles are smeared away into an exhaustive experience. While repeated listens gradually unearth these labored-over details (back album highlight “In Chains” doesn’t really sink in until maybe the fifth visit), it’s tough to say whether A Deeper Understanding truly warrants this scholar-like study.
Lyrically, Granduciel writes about spending long, endless nights either searching for a metaphoric light or feeling disconnected from those who are important to him. Plenty of songwriters have found success with similar subjects, sure, but the record lazily recycles the same vague turns of phrase across its entire length. “Nothing to Find,” one of the album’s more spry tracks, at one point just lists familiar classic rock platitudes: “I walked alone in pain / Through the early morning rain / Feel the warmth of my embrace / Hold me underneath your shadow.”
It’s like listening to a friend who’s well aware of being lost in the intoxicating fog of their own existential crisis, but frustratingly never seeks out new answers or conclusions. While there’s certainly a poetry and authenticity to that struggle, it makes investing in A Deeper Understanding more numbing than moving.
It’s the moments where Granduciel seems to wake from this self-imposed stupor that serve as the album’s true highlights. Like in opener “Up All Night,” when Granduciel sings that he’s “stepping out into the light” and a buzzing cacophony of guitar and brass flood the track with a new blood-pumping energy. Later, on the midpoint of “Strangest Thing,” Granduciel unleashes one guitar-squealing climax on top of another, swelling the song until it threatens to burst.
A Deeper Understanding is so far perhaps Granduciel’s greatest realization of his rock and roll dreams. While the record’s sheer beauty welcomes the occasional visit, these sparkling details begin to fade and decay the longer one spends exhuming what lies underneath.