On ‘A Deeper Understanding,’ a deeper dive from The War on Drugs
Adam Granduciel is a master of balancing past and present. The Philadelphia-based, Dover-raised singer-songwriter who fronts The War on Drugs has earned indie-darling status by filtering classic rock influences through an ambient dream-pop haze, a formula whose appeal proved near universal on 2014’s critically hailed breakthrough “Lost in the Dream.” Three years later, Granduciel returns with “A Deeper Understanding,” an album that finds the band honing its unique sound.
The brisk opening track “Up All Night” lays out the instrumental palette the band draws from for most of “A Deeper Understanding”: ’80s-style electronic drums, warm keyboards, a blown-out guitar solo. As the drums keep a steady, unchanging pulse, the keyboards induce zoning out and reflection; it’s this combination of propulsion and drift that makes The War on Drugs such emotionally gratifying music. Granduciel’s airy vocals pierce through the fog despite his soft, relaxed delivery, and his lyrics address broad themes of disorientation and romantic malaise in vague, impressionistic language. If you enjoy this song, you will probably appreciate the rest of the album.
Throughout “A Deeper Understanding,” the band doubles down on its idiosyncrasies. Long songs? Six- to seven-minute run times are the norm, with the gorgeously slow-burning “Thinking of a Place” marking the first time in recent memory that a successful artist has chosen an 11-minute song as an album’s first single. Hints of Springsteen? The nostalgic, yearning lyrics and triumphant central guitar lick on “Strangest Thing” are textbook Boss, while “Holding On,” the catchiest, most anthemic song Granduciel has penned since “Red Eyes,” borrows a few glockenspiel notes from “Born to Run.” Anyone who thought signing to a major label would force The War on Drugs to compromise its stubbornly trend-blind aesthetic should find “A Deeper Understanding” a reassuringly familiar listening experience.
The cover photo of Granduciel holed up in the recording studio is an appropriate one for “A Deeper Understanding.” This is the work of a dedicated craftsman, one who labors over every detail until it sounds exactly how he imagined it in his head. From the lush soundscapes to the lyrics, which complement the mood without ever calling attention to themselves, the effect is one of immersion in a wistful waking dream. Put some headphones on, find a good window to stare out of, and let time stretch to the horizon; “A Deeper Understanding” will reward your patience.