The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding   - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding  

by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2017-08-25

To be frank, the fourth full length from The War On Drugs is grand, in every sense of the word. Drugs’ frontman/mastermind, Adam Granduciel, has managed to pull-off a stunning tribute to the lush, heavily-produced, pop-rock sound of 1980s while at the same time never stooping to sonic mockery nor thievery. In fact, the sincerity Granduciel exhibits throughout A Deeper Understanding is equal parts refreshing, and off-putting, in an era in which most musicians would rather bite-off their own tongues than ever dare to remove it from their cheeks. Thus the unashamed grandiosity on display (slick production, gorgeous guitar solos, and idealistic lyrics) transforms A Deeper Understanding into something unique in 2017: an honest, polished, guitar-driven rock record.

A Deeper Understanding’s opener, “Up All Night” is a pulsing, up-tempo, taste of things to come, musically speaking: deceptively simple instrumentation, Dylan-esque vocals, layered walls of sound and glossy production. “Up All Night” is also indicative of Adam Granduciel’s current mindset. He references a storm outside and an unbreakable tension that has him “spinning around the floor.” The juxtaposition between Granduciel’s lyrical anxiety and the track’s incredibly smooth musicality somehow drives harder an already driving beat. Granduciel’s vented pressure-cooker of a guitar solo feels like an unstoppable force that, once released, finally affords the man a moment’s peace… In toto, it’s a helluva track one.

After having exploded all over listeners on “Up All Night,” A Deeper Understanding quickly locks into a bass-heavy ‘70s-era groove reminiscent of Steely Dan, or Fleetwood Mac, with “Pain.” The plaintive core of this song, a man lost without his love, is little more, lyrically speaking, than a series of universal platitudes which somehow become infinitely less trite when followed by a powerful guitar solo. That dynamic, simple lyrics set atop gorgeous instrumentals, reveals Granduciel to be a sort of inverted Bob Dylan–lyrically competent but musically brilliant. A Deeper Understanding really makes a case for Granduciel’s solos being as insightful and emotionally compelling as a great Dylan line.

Mainstream rock of the 1970-80s seems to be the central touchpoint for A Deeper Understanding and the synths, bells and descending riff that open “Holding On” evoke the catchiest moments of both Born to Run and Born in the USA, simultaneously. The song itself seems to ponder the inherent folly of unchecked nostalgia, a Springsteenian concept if ever there was one. “Nothing to Find,” another up-tempo burner, plays out a bit like Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” but with vastly superior guitar and harmonica solos. And while both these tracks are reverent to their progenitors, they also sound incredibly fresh and immediate as if there weren’t three decades dividing Bruce/Tom’s heydays and the recording of A Deeper Understanding.

As wonderful as Granduciel’s guitar work is throughout the album, the unsung heroes of A Deeper Understanding are the keys and drums. From the Phil Spector bombast of “In Chains” to the trudging walk of shame on “Strangest Thing,” The War On Drugs’ rhythm section is almost too perfect. Similarly keyboards, pianos and synthesizers, underpin nearly every track on the record. Whether it’s an ambient atmospheric moodiness (“Knocked Down”) or a pleasantly minimal piano part (“Pain”) the keys are so abundant throughout A Deeper Understanding that most listeners won't actually hear them.

Probably the most shocking thing about A Deeper Understanding is that despite its abundance of perfect pop-rock songs, and seeming mass appeal, this album will probably not make The War On Drugs into a household name. Adam Granduciel may lack Bruce Springsteen’s charisma, and distinct lyrical gift, but most definitely is a match for The Boss when it comes to his guitar prowess. Similarly, the late-80s Don Henley-meets-Tom Petty elements of A Deeper Understanding are certainly unique to the sonic landscape of 2017. The War On Drugs couldn’t possibly get lost in the shuffle of modern rock radio because they sound like nothing else from this decade. It may well be that Granduciel, the perfectionist who chiseled, shaped and polished these atypically long tracks into existence, has no interest in the lime light. Or maybe he doesn't care to appeal to the drunken arena audiences he could clearly draw with just a few minor tweaks to his sound.

Whatever happens to this incredible record commercially speaking, it would behoove you to seek it out. It’s odd but the mere notion of a guitar-driven rock record in the age of Fetty Wap and Meghan Trainor makes A Deeper Understanding quite unusual. The album is by far the best of The War On Drugs’ records and the culmination of Adam Granduciel’s music career to date. Mostly though A Deeper Understanding offers such a massive listening experience, musically, thematically and emotionally that it deserves an equally huge fanfare to take it all in.

Comments (3)

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Fantastic review Jon! You are spot on here; gonna be one of my top albums of the year.

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Thanks, James! Between this, that weird new The National record and Protomartyr, the end of Summer '17 has had some spectacular surprises.

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I'm not so sure. There's huge talent there, but this is, for the most part, a bit of a sprawling mess. It's kind of a road trip with some really interesting vistas and a lot of sepia-toned flat earth, but I'm on my fourth listen to be certain.

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