For a while I called them The War on Drums.
Although Charlie Hall gets credit for playing them, leader Adam Granduciel prefers coaxing line after line of candy-colored floss from his guitar, oblivious to instrumental competition that isn’t a synth mixed to sound like a guitar. He avoids narrative. He doesn’t much like songs. He doesn’t seem to like girls either insofar as they exist beyond vague presences, ethereal harbingers of doom and commitment drifting in from 40 years of male singer-songwriter efforts.
In the early ‘00s the Dylan-damaged Granduciel released two albums that posed an important question: What would result from combining the Nobel winner’s mid ‘60s “thin, wild mercury sound” with Spacemen 3’s post-hippie tremulousness? The breakthrough was 2014’s Lost in the Dream, whose title told the whole story. The War on Drugs’ fourth album A Deeper Understanding will likely sell and stream in impressive drams; for an industry starved of icons it can sell to what remains of the glossies, Granduciel reaffirms the eternal rock verities of scowling through unkempt hair and effects pedals.
Dressing in the raiment of these Boomer influences while singing from within those echo-filled canyons where ‘80s recording engineers go to die is The War on Drugs’ schtick, and when his axemanship bores him Granduciel is smart enough to demand the tinkle of a glockenspiel. “Pain” epitomizes his approach—a midtempo mediation with acoustic strums over which he spills liquid leads, testing the listener’s patience for a zealously mixed lead vocal, all the better for Granduciel to share “a deeper understanding of who I am.” In case you get any ideas, he reminds us that “I resist but I cannot change.” Were this drool not followed by a scabrous solo we would be crying for bibs. Although Dylan and Mark Knopfler often get cited as forebears, Granduciel’s, high, thin, sometimes affecting whine is what John Mayer must sound like when he imitates Dylan. Makes sense: Granduciel’s another cat whose hair falls over his eyes and regards his guitar body as a wonderland.
Give them this: At last The War on Drugs function as a band instead of a solo project. Robbie Bennett’s electric and acoustic pianos add color and counterpoint as required, for example. A Deeper Understanding does boast a handful of powerful tunes, and except for the closer they all sport a hook to remember them by; the question is whether you’ll want to remember them. Fans of Lost in a Dream’s “Red Eyes” will dig “Holding On,” about the pull of the open road and the kind of skies painted in “washes of indigo.” The band’s concentration, like a driver staring at a fixed point on the horizon, is impressive. So is “Up All Night,” which giddies-up without fuss; the thud of Hall’s possibly programmed percussion when it kicks in should sound dandy on stage. But “Up All Night” is also 6:47. In keeping with the jam ethos, the average tune on A Deeper Understanding is five and a half minutes long.
My local Argentine restaurant has Lost in a Dream in heavy rotation alongside Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded. I understand—the allure of dolor on an international proscenium, transcending language. A Deeper Understanding will join them, for Granduciel, this master of rock canon-drenched exertion, has fused his obsessions into a batty sequence that may nevertheless prove bewitching to his devotees. Please, dear god, don’t ask him to play “Freebird.”