With 'A Deeper Understanding,' The War On Drugs Balances Ambition And Grace

Sep 13, 2017

In certain rock circles, ambition is a negative — but not with The War on Drugs. You can hear it right away in the band's new album, A Deeper Understanding: These guys are swinging for the fences.

The new album shows the band's reverence for classic rock, but singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel is too gifted to be dismissed as a student or a copycat. He writes rousing melodies that hang in the air as though suspended in time. On "Holding On," his voice is shadowed by elegant skywriting guitar. The towering mix also includes a prominent glockenspiel, reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's landmark "Born To Run."

There were hints of wide-screen ambition on The War on Drugs' previous album, Lost in the Dream, which came out in 2014. By then, the six-piece band had graduated from clubs and cramped dive bars to be rising stars on the touring circuit, and the album landed on many best-of lists that year. Its sound was big — wild and abrasive, with hints of tenderness lurking underneath. A Deeper Understanding nudges those elements to the forefront.

Granduciel spent over two years in multiple studios working on this new album. He tried countless combinations of acoustic and electronic instruments, building up and tearing down the arrangements. He says his main goal was to make the songs feel alive, not fussed-over. This is clear on tracks like the nighttime meditation "Knocked Down," which turns on a beautiful and forlorn one-word vocal hook.

It's a fairly typical wounded-lover song, made engrossing by the open space that surrounds Granduciel's reedy voice. That's the secret to this whole album: There's lots going on – dozens of record-geek references; long, expansive instrumental interludes — yet it never feels overloaded. The music unfolds gracefully, evoking not only the sounds of classic rock, but something more elusive: a journeying spirit.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The indie rock band The War On Drugs started out in Philadelphia's cramped dive bars more than a decade ago. Over the last few years, they've been playing on bigger stages and have just released their fourth album. It's called "A Deeper Understanding." Reviewer Tom Moon says it aspires to the wildly ambitious record making of '70s rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAR ON DRUGS SONG, "HOLDING ON")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: In certain rock circles, ambition is a negative - not with The War On Drugs. You can hear it right away. These guys are swinging for the fences. The band is reverent about classic rock. This towering mix includes prominent glockenspiel...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAR ON DRUGS SONG, "HOLDING ON")

MOON: ...An instrument not much heard on rock records since Bruce Springsteen's landmark "Born To Run."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING ON")

THE WAR ON DRUGS: (Singing) Once I was alive, and I could feel. I was holding onto you.

MOON: But singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel is way too gifted to be dismissed as a student or a copycat. He writes rousing melodies that hang in the air as though suspended in time. On this one, his voice is shadowed by elegant, skywriting guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING ON")

THE WAR ON DRUGS: (Singing) I went down a crooked highway. I went all outside the line. I've been rejected. Now the light has turned, and I'm out of time.

MOON: There were hints of widescreen ambition on their previous album which came out in 2014. By then, the six-piece band had graduated from clubs to be rising stars on the touring circuit. The sound was big, wild and abrasive with hints of tenderness lurking underneath. The new album nudges that to the forefront.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIN")

THE WAR ON DRUGS: (Singing) Go to bed now. I can tell pain is on the way out now. Look away. A domino falls away. I know it's hard looking in.

MOON: Granduciel spent over two years in multiple studios working on "A Deeper Understanding." He tried countless combinations of acoustic and synthesized instruments, building up and tearing down the arrangements. He says his main goal was to make the songs feel alive, not fussed over. This one, a nighttime meditation called "Knocked Down," turns on a beautiful and forlorn one-word vocal hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOCKED DOWN")

THE WAR ON DRUGS: (Singing) I want to love you, but I get knocked down. I'm only shaking 'cause I'm lying in the hold. I want to shade it, but I can't break free. Anyway...

MOON: It's a fairly typical wounded lover song made engrossing by the open space that surrounds Granduciel's squinty voice. That's the secret to this whole album. There's lots going on, dozens of record geek references, long, expansive instrumental interludes. But it never feels overloaded. The music unfolds gracefully, invoking not only the sounds of classic rock but something more elusive - a journeying spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING TO FIND")

THE WAR ON DRUGS: (Singing) Oh, I'm rising from within. I see it every morning. Tell me where the rhythm ends. Is it cold...

SHAPIRO: The latest from The War On Drugs is called "A Deeper Understanding." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING TO FIND")

THE WAR ON DRUGS: (Singing) And there's nothing I can say or do in between. Oh, it always changes. I don't understand. I keep moving to the edge, and now comes a feeling I can't stop. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.