Album Review: The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

Following the release of Adam Granduciel’s landmark project Lost In The Dream in March 2014, the third record from his band The War On Drugs and a moment of global recognition for the Philadelphians, it would have been understandable if the magnitude of plaudits and accolades had carried a heavy weight on the 38 year-old. But with his follow-up record A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel has created another tour-de-force and a piece of work that deserves the same if not greater praise and commendation.

For Record Store Day this year, the first work since Lost In The Dream was unveiled by Granduciel, in the form of a sprawling, subtle and stunning 11-minute track titled Thinking Of A Place. It was our first sign that The War On Drugs were looking to continue their nature of creating reflective and extensive tracks, allowing the listener to fully-immerse themselves and roam as Granduciel and co. paint a picture, through both the lyrics and spectral sounds from each beautifully layered instrument. Now, with the full article available, this expansive approach has clearly been utilised throughout, with each song spreading over an average of six and a half minutes. Yet despite this longer-than-normal track time, at no point on this record, much like its predecessor, does this seem too much.

Lost In The Dream was clearly a pensive and often melancholy record, and these themes certainly cross over into A Deeper Understanding, as Granduciel continues to search for meaning. The lyrics are again limited, with doorways, the water, night-skies and memories often being studied. In the reverb-drenched Pain for example, one of two tracks on the record that were laid down on the band’s first night together with engineer Shawn Everett, the frontman desperately declares ‘I wanna find what can’t be found’. Moreover, on the rolling and slow-burning Strangest Thing, which builds to an epic, guitar-laden crescendo, Granduciel questions in his Dylan-esque vocals, ‘Am I just livin’ in the space between the beauty and the pain?’, harking back to that feeling of anxiety and uncertainty that was so prominent on his critically-acclaimed 2014 work. Even when there is a moment of hope, during In Chains for example, Granduciel states ‘I believe in all the power, in doing what we can do / We can try and learn to make it through’, before quickly returning to a state of unease and anguish.

Optimism and romance does feature however, particularly through the addition of numerous new sounds. The War On Drugs have added to their already wonderfully-textured work, with some tracks featuring up to 20 instruments, many of which were recorded and then layered by Granduciel himself, during one of his long-nights alone in a New York studio. Previous comparisons to Bruce Springsteen can still be made, particularly during the driving Nothing To Find and the exceptional Holding On. But within the latter for example, the unexpected inclusion of bouncy glockenspiel adds a layer of hopefulness over the pulsating, chugging groove of the drums from Patrick Berkery and jaw-dropping slide-guitar from bandmates Meg Duffy and Anthony LaMarca.

And this essentially, sums up the work behind A Deeper Understanding. Whilst its predecessor was very much a Granduciel project, he has been clear to emphasise that this latest effort is a ‘band record’, utilising their multiple talents and knowledge to reach a collective endpoint. Though it is essentially Granduciel’s feelings and ideas on paper, his inclusion of an arsenal of friends and bandmates has made this record something that each and every one of them can be proud of.

Adam Granduciel is quickly becoming the master of pondering, recording and expressing his innermost anxieties and desires, through carefully-crafted and lusciously vivid imagery that has been painted by a depth of flawlessly-layered rock music. His weathered vocals, roaming and explosive guitar solos, the looped synths and pulsating bass and drums wash over the listener, taking them to new heights at the most epic of moments, before bringing them back down with perfect-proficiency, allowing Granduciel’s searching lyrics to rise above the beautifully-crafted arrangements on this stunning record.

Dom Kay