Since The War on Drugs’ breakout 2014 record Lost in the Dream catapulted the band into greater exposure, there has seemed to be undue expectation on them to heed the call to lead a new brigade of guitar-forward rock ‘n’ roll bands, of which the likes of Kurt Vile and Ultimate Painting can count themselves members. Whether or not songwriter Adam Granduciel felt that pressure when bearing down to pen a follow-up to Lost remains unclear. But if the subtleties in nuance and 30,000-foot overview of sound heard on A Deeper Understanding is any indication, Granduciel’s artistic lens has been laser-focused on living up to those expectations, and fucking with them at the same time.
With a title like A Deeper Understanding, it’s incumbent upon the listener to at least attempt to deduce some of the impetus for the writing and the playing, which the group delivers masterfully, in trance-like croons that more or less run in neutral, even when Granduciel allows his voice to soar on songs like “Holding On.” What separates the songs from each other are the intricacies of the dulcet tones perpetrated by the band’s entrancing interplay.
“Pain,” for all its sentimental blathering, and its cinematic, jangle-rock pomposity, manages to evade the ease with which it could be disregarded as schlocky. It’s a magic trick of sorts, with the deceit shrouded by the gruff, admittedly intoxicating vox of Granduciel, as he bullseyes the album’s crux with the line, “Pull me closer, let me hold you in/Give me the deeper understanding of who I am.” It’s a ruse of repetition, in some cases, that somehow transforms The War on Drugs’ music from dad-rock poison to something grander, more poignant.
In terms of dynamics, this theory is borne out with the chronology of each track on A Deeper Understanding, as songs like “Holding On,” and the album’s opener “Up All Night” revel in a kind of compositional hamster wheel, where the tenets of minimalist musical approaches are given lusher accoutrement, and layers of synths and percussive beats to create a wall of forceful pop plodding. It’s feel-good stuff, and when it resonates, it really sticks for a while.
The record finds significance in odd moments, and in subtle movements of crescendo and mood, perhaps displayed best on the reverb-y dream ride “Strangest Thing.” Here, Granduciel is afforded a better vehicle for the timbre of his scruffy delivery, and in rambling verse, as he sings “Am I just living in the space between the beauty and the pain?” while a stone-y, easy-listening arrangement conducts its slow-burn flicker in flourishes of faraway guitars, in a kind of aimlessness that can strike comparisons to the more meandering moments of the Smiths, the Cure, Phil Collins, and similarly ballyhooed ‘80s-esque artists.
The lo-fi warble of a warm organ opens “Knocked Down,” another demure cut that positively oozes with angst, recoiling in its own progression of sparse percussion, spacey guitars and probably Granduciel’s best vocal on the record. As the tune blooms, the chorus pivots, exposing a kind of wilted pining, with Granduciel singing “I wanna love you but I get knocked down/I’m only shakin’ ‘cause I’m lyin’ in the cold/I wanna shed it but I can’t break free” in a shivering delivery comparable to the lovelorn warbles of Ryan Adams.
The band sounds best, though, when it puts the pedal to the floor on driving pop rockers like “Nothing to Find.” Even when they sound like some simulation of rock music, The War on Drugs have the capacity to explode in relentless, dialed parameters that touch on everything from A-ha to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Empire Burlesque-era Dylan. And perhaps that is A Deeper Understanding’s greatest asset: its ability to bridge seemingly disparate eras of sound under one weird parasol.
“Thinking of a Place” is ushered in by groovy guitar lead and billowing keys, extolling the easy-does-it malaise of Lost in the Dream, with Granduciel’s summertime tenor cooing as if he is recollecting something holy and personal. The track’s 11-minute runtime is indicative of the excess through which Granduciel and the band endeavored to feature a collective band record, and that aspect is well-delivered on A Deeper Understanding.
Late-album track “In Chains” is indistinguishable from the majority of the rest of the record, but is one of the finer examples of The War on Drugs’ ability to squeeze the formula for all its worth. Deft bass, driving drums, a soaring chorus set to odd time signatures and vaguely anthemic melodic potential all coalesce here for an agreeable tune, even if you could swear you’ve already heard it a track or two before.
Granduciel is a purported perfectionist, and that sort of dedication is understandably admirable in an artist. There comes a point, though, where despite the aim for meticulous care, you miss the forest for the trees. The stories or the creative process behind the recordings can be intriguing, but if that overbearing, gelatinous tone is too worried over, the result isn’t as likely to draw in the casual listener.
And that’s the thing: The War on Drugs are desperately close to crossing over into the greater consciousness of American rock music listeners. It is a strange alchemy afoot in their presentation; their affinities for pedestrian rock-lite can either be regarded as dismissable trash, or the most intensely gratifying thing you’ve ever heard, depending on which side of the bed you woke up on the day you hear it. There are clear dynamic voids, tension shifts forgotten, something hollow or maybe alien about the patent, polished delivery of the band’s production and performances that, when not enjoyed in the live setting, seems destined to be relegated to the mire of music to listen to while doing other shit. Which is a shame, because The War on Drugs really are a fantastic band when they break free and noodle a bit.