The Classic-Rock Ecstasy of The War on Drugs

The band’s fourth album, A Deeper Understanding, offers a powerful and steady high.

Shawn Brackbill / Atlantic Records

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.

It’s the rhythm that first defines most of the songs on A Deeper Understanding, with drum and bass interlocking for, say, a Creedence Clearwater Revival shamble, or a Tom Petty toe-tap. Once established, the groove is almost never interrupted—even as the song mutates for five, six, or 12 minutes. This is a technique most reminiscent of ’70s German rockers like Neu!, but also, structurally, of techno and house music. For Granduciel, it’s a way to achieve something novel and, perhaps counterintuitively, unpredictable. He told Vice, “I don’t like drums dictating the song; like when you hear a fill and then you know the chorus is coming up.”

The reliable hum lends itself to easy listening—and easy criticism. You can clean your house or host a dinner party to A Deeper Understanding, absolutely, and as it filters in you might find yourself thinking, “I like this song, the one with the pretty piano part,” or “this one, which reminds me of ‘Free Bird,’” only to eventually realize there are a number of tracks that fit those descriptions. Drive-by absorption might also make certain listeners write off the band as it transgresses common ideas of coolness and taste. The singer Mark Kozelek, for example, infamously once heard The War on Drugs playing on a distant festival stage and sneered at their “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” That wasn’t an inaccurate description, to be fair—but it sold short the full scope of the music.

It’s the close listen that reveals Granduciel’s real talent. In interviews, he’s talked about obsessively fussing over every sound in the mix, and the payoff from that attention is serious: Each instrumental element is crisp and fully rendered, familiar yet fresh. Synthetic strings, for example, may not have been this capable of producing actual emotion, since, well, the early-’80s that Granduciel so often references. Some of the album’s most powerful guitar-shredding passages, played full blast, will make it seem as if an amp is plugged in in your living room.

But the point is not only the feel of these sounds. Granduciel writes generous, poppy hooks and deploys them at the moment of maximum possible impact. The guitar line that defines “Strangest Thing”—one of the best songs of the year—doesn’t arrive until 2 minutes and 40 seconds in, transforming what had been a wistful comedown tune into something massive, like “Purple Rain” played on cathedral bells. On that song and elsewhere, it becomes clear Granduciel’s arrangements aren’t nearly as repetitive as they may initially seem. Melodies emerge, move among instruments, and then seem to die. Rebirth, minutes later, is always possible.

In the rare occasions that Granduciel varies the rhythm of a song, the effect on the listener is like that of a seismic event. I jumped a few times listening to the awesome new-age-y workout of “In Chains”: first when a drum fill did, for once, announce a chorus, and later when the song’s heartbeat hiccuped into the classic “Be My Baby” pattern. Contrastingly, the 11-minute single “Thinking of a Place” unwinds into a lush, long portion without drums. When the song’s main groove snaps back in, it’s like a magician pulling off a reveal—scarily sudden, but also smooth. Such moments show that through the ever-pretty, ever-nostalgic haze of his arrangements, Granduciel wants to keep the senses and the mind awake.

Does music this visceral need to mean anything? Granduciel sings in a pleasing but unvarying rasp, and he likes obvious rhymes: “All my waiting was in vain / I walked alone in pain / Through an early morning rain,” etc. Generally the songs tell of striving, endlessly, for bliss—in another person, in a place, or in one’s self. So if it seems on-the-nose for him to sing of a sky “painted in a wash of indigo” or of “somewhere they can make it rain diamonds,” it’s worth remembering that music, across eras, has often been about envisioning paradise through sound. He’s executing that mission with extreme care, finesse, and—most remarkably—consistency. The best passages of A Deeper Understanding are shot through with sadness simply because they eventually have to end, but with this high, you can expect another wave soon.