The War on Drugs has one of those band names that isn’t supposed to mean anything. But listen to the Philadelphia band’s wonderful fourth album, A Deeper Understanding, and, you may, in fact, think about drugs—and more specifically, clichés surrounding drugs and rock-and-roll history.
Bandleader Adam Granduciel is a student of that history, and his music often poses questions few rock fans may have thought to ask. Like, “What if Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer’ was 10 minutes long?” or “Why can’t we live inside the fourth minute of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’ forever?” But he taps the past with a sensibility that’s new. The sounds of ’60s psychedelia are here, yet not the questing, form-free sensibility associated with psychedelics. Signifiers of ’70s and ’80s excess also abound, but the twitchy bravado or desperate intensity that critics might have described as “coked out” doesn’t. Rather, these songs pulse steadily and patiently, doling out climaxes of euphoria at carefully considered intervals. With apologies for using one of the iffiest tropes of record reviewing: This is classic rock on MDMA.
Granduciel and a shifting cast of band members have been recording under the War on Drugs name since 2005, with their greatest commercial and critical breakthrough arriving via 2014’s Lost in the Dream. That album’s standouts “Red Eyes” and “Under the Pressure” perfected a formula for immersing listeners: Over a chugging and unfailing rhythm, the band tunefully layered guitar heroics, vintage keyboards, and Dylanesque vocals—all cloaked in dreamy reverb. The songs infiltrated streaming-service playlists, publications’ year-end lists, and the consciousness of the rock mogul Jimmy Iovine, who proclaimed the band’s impending hugeness. Granduciel signed to a major label, Atlantic Records, and has now delivered an album of spectacular scale and ambition.