Dire Straits fans rejoice as the War on Drugs get ready to issue their fourth album and the first since 'Lost in the Dream' - the album that saw us branded "off our rockers" because we didn't really like it. Admittedly we were in a minority on that as the album became one of those slow burning hits that everyone owns - just like 'Brothers in Arms' in fact. This is sure to be a much anticipated follow up.
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Doesn’t it just make you sick? Their babysteps in the bag, the War on Drugs have moved from Secretly Canadian to major league label Atlantic. This is, of course, absolutely fine, but that Atlantic sticker in the middle of the wax for their double LP really gets to me; straight out of a time when I would buy Bob Dylan CDs from the only existing record store in my hometown, it makes me feel like their whole dad rock thing is being actualised, the canon being time-travelled for them so they can live in it. Imitating a folk rock past that includes Dylan, the Waterboys and Dire Straits, Adam Granduciel’s band have been taking the pastoral past and making it big, giving it a cosmos. On ‘A Deeper Understanding’, they double down on the big music of ‘Lost In the Dream’, making Americana as directed by Christopher Nolan.
Prepare yourself: the record is sixty-six minutes long, many of them unnecessary, some of them deftly beautiful. “Up All Night” is the kind of star-gazing tune promised on the record prior, but here relaxed into a state of complete lethargy -- the drumbeat is almost a self-parody of softness, the piano twinkles ever-so occasionally and Granduciel’s voice becomes part of the soundscape itself, matching the watery sonics with that quiet coo. From there, the record becomes pretty much the chillest, old-school rockathon I’ve ever heard, taking their old ambient textures and making them little more than production magic for a nostalgic song. “Pain” is full of little supplementary riffs and acoustic strums, as Granduciel tells another love story at the fore of the extremely quiet storm.
A weird conflict lies at the heart of this band, though it might just be what makes so many love them: their production, so bold and clear, is like an early morning landscape with nobody but you living in it -- their songs make use of about half the space, going steady handed through the panorama. “Thinking of a Place” seems to recognise this, actually taking the band's old ambient segueing and putting it into an eleven minute tune. It’s a dulcet behemoth of half-pace strums, wahing guitar licks and broad bits of Wilco-esque soloing. It spreads into long passages of signal droning, surveying the beautiful world the band get to live in and broadening its horizons -- I could live in these moments forever, but the song feels strangely separate, more formless and unremarkable than the basking soundscape. All this, really, to say that the songs just aren't there: the band have fallen further away from hooks and deeper into the chasm of rock 'n' roll meditation.
Granduciel’s songwriting has gotten more habitual since ‘Lost In the Dream’ -- these songs favour balladry and getting stiller, the instrumentation flowing through with nothing but patience. When he goes for pace, as on “Nothing to Find”, it largely feels like he’s rehashing the sparkling synth ‘n’ guitar dynamics of old records, offering little more than the same shoegaze-stylised twang of old -- dream pop and harmonicas, they sound nice together, but they come off as another “Disappearing”. Hearing these songs, I realise the War on Drugs now have their very own sound, fully developed and all signed for, which is a lovely thing -- at least now they just sound like a repeat of themselves.
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- A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
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