By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
The War on Drugs occupy enigmatic territory in rock music. Their synth-laden take on roots rock is theoretically incongruous and unsound—on paper, the group veer dangerously close to the formerly divisive, but now canonized heartland pop of Born in the USA—but long hair majordomo Adam Granduciel and his (mostly) faithful aides-de-camp have been effectively crafting heartening, singular indie fodder for the past nearly ten years. Almost revisionist in their intent, the Philadelphia ensemble at times seem to be rewriting the rock landscape of the 1980s; reimagining the decade’s synthetic indulgences by aging rockers like Dylan or Harrison, whose attempts to stay hip fluctuate between sweetly naive and wholly needless, The War on Drugs re-contextualize synth-rock as a calculated effort to merge electronic and rock music and build off the tension therein. But the group transcend gimmickry by virtue of Granduciel’s passionate lyricism. Detailing personal strife, doomed and triumphant romances, and the overall perils of the human experience, The War on Drugs subvert their nostalgic aesthetic in favour of universal empathy, and on A Deeper Understanding, the band achieve one of their most fruitful excavations into the human psyche.
Opening with a flagrant admission of ignorance, “I don’t know, I’ve been away,” the album establishes immediately Granduciel’s vexations on Up All Night. Here, he’s the ostracized derelict, the spurned acolyte forever cursed to harbor paranoia and malaise even as he “[steps] out into the world” after a symbolic rainstorm. And halfway through the second track Pain, the singer makes clear his desire: “Give me a deeper understanding of who I am.” So begins his venture into self-rediscovery, one marked by false respites (Strangest Thing), pleas for transitory comfort (“Hold me underneath your shadow once before I get erased” on Nothing to Find) and the periodic revelation, such as on Thinking of a Place (“There’s a darkness over there, but we ain’t going”). By the album’s closing song You Don’t Have to Go, Granduciel has finally granted credence to the untenability of love, declaring, “Love is a bird I can’t even see.” His Other Half may be gone now, but her absence isn’t the result of his own mistakes, it’s now understood as fait accompli, that which he cannot nor could not ever change. With love as his foremost preoccupation, it’s fitting that the frontman should reach a new maturity following the dissolution of his relationship.
Although he spends most of the album pining for his old flame, Granduciel knows full well a reunion won’t end his woes. By his understanding, romance isn’t an undertaking to be valiantly consummated—he knows he won’t find atonement in her embrace, even after this fraught voyage to self-realization. Instead, Granduciel conceives of romance as something to be preserved: as the old adages goes, it’s a journey, not a destination. As such, distance, both physical and temporal, is his greatest foil. He’s racked with worry that while he’s away from his paramour, she’s forgotten him, and despite his best efforts, patience can no longer afford him reprieve, only more of the same consternation: “I’d been up all night/ Is it life and we’re just living it?” For Granduciel, love is a lightyear and a lifetime away.
Accommodating the melancholia of their lead singer, the rest of the group provide airy, dreamy instrumentation to bolster Granduciel’s pained musings. Never vying for the spotlight, each carefully selected synth and guitar sound plays into the other, often appearing from out of the ether and settling into its place in the mix without any fuss or ostentation. On high energy numbers like Up All Night and Nothing to Find, just as on the slower songs, the music never distracts from the vocals, maintaining an aural dais on which Granduciel delivers his dirges. As a safeguard to his lyrics, this sonic bubble is rarely pierced, save for the guitar solos on Pain and Thinking of a Place, whose freeform noodling hearkens back to acid rockers like Country Joe’s Barry Melton. The overall effect of the group’s sound, however, is one of encompassing warmth and organic exploration.
Much like their previous releases, however, The War on Drugs revel too often in the long jam. With just one of the ten songs clocking in at under five minutes, the album would benefit greatly from an editor who could scale back some of the more indulgent moments of the album and reduce its run time to under an hour. True, the hypnotic nature of their musical meandering makes it easy to fall under the longer cuts’ spells, but after six or so minutes, the charm wears off.
Nevertheless, A Deeper Understanding serves as the latest in a string of hits by The War on Drugs. Fully realised and deeply personal, the care put into this album is self-evident and marks another step forward in the maturation of Adam Granduciel’s songwriting. The farther the group traverse the murky territory of the mind, the more things become illuminated. As the lyric on Strangest Thing reveals: “I ain’t got everything I need/ If I’m living in the space between beauty and pain.”