A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING by The War on Drugs
Genre: Heartland Rock, Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Up All Night,” “Pain,” “Knocked Down”
The War on Drugs became a household name amongst indie rock fans with the release of the band’s third LP, LOST IN THE DREAM. The album’s guitar-driven tracks, blended with bright, dream pop synths, injected the indie scene with a much needed splash of classic rock revivalism in a day and age in which indie was losing its edge. Frontman Adam Granduciel’s raspy vocals evoked comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but the explorative modern instrumentation that it rested upon was a hybrid in a league of its own. The resulting widespread acclaim cemented the band as heroes of their genre, leaving fans eagerly anticipating a follow up. However, the group’s most recent release, A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING, delivers a predictable and disappointing hour of music that offers little innovation, and a lack of quality to match it.
Given that the record’s first single, “Thinking of a Place” clocks in at a lofty 11 minutes, it wasn’t surprising to see The War On Drugs stick to their formula of long winded, jam-centric songs on this new LP. Only one of the 10 tracks on the record is shorter than five minutes. Now, this usually wouldn’t be a problem for a jam band such as The War On Drugs, if not for the fact that the drawn out instrumentations on A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING feel so identical in tone and sound to LOST IN THE DREAM. Sure, the album sounds masterfully recorded and engineered, but the songwriting is simply unimpressive given what The War On Drugs has proven to be capable of. Across the board, songs fail to innovate, recycling basic four-on-the-floor drum patterns and gravitating towards mind-numbing and unchanging chord progressions. With each song that uses the same distorted, echoing lead guitar tone, the more and more indiscernible each song becomes from the others. However, probably the most disengaging aspect of A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING is Granduciel’s vocals. Melodies sit comfortably within Granduciel’s limited vocal range, which unfortunately only consists of him sounding tired, breathless, or both. In addition to stale deliveries, the actual melodies in question are simply boring. Even if not direct rip-offs of others songs in The War On Drugs catalog, the vocal lines in A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING still feel derivative and uninspired. With the rest of the instrumentation following suit, it becomes clear as to why the record comes off as so overwhelmingly “alright.”
However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making an album that’s alright—it’s simply that A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING had such high expectations given LOST IN THE DREAM’s success. In an isolated context, A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING has some excellently crafted, patient songs that are incredibly easy to listen to mindlessly while going about your day. “Up All Night,” for example, builds a groove out of an effortlessly catchy piano hook, eventually hammering on layers of machine drums to match the song’s stuttering synths. The song stands out simply because of the stylistic range it suggests that the band has. However, the rest of the album is less convincing, with maybe the exception of “Pain” and “Knocked Down,” songs that don’t necessarily boast exciting production, but at least offer solid vocal melodies that aren’t instantly forgettable. “Pain”—in typical War On Drugs fashion—devolves into a slew of multiple noodling guitar lines that ultimately ends up sounding like someone wandering up and down the neck with distortion on. This unfortunately, is a reoccurring theme of the record.
“Knocked Down” is the shortest piece on the album, and is an example of just how resourceful The War On Drugs can be with only four minutes. What begins as a fragile piano lullaby eventually grows into an immediate, but slow burning ballad that gives the band room to build far away soundscapes, while conforming to a clear and catchy structure. The chorus, “I want to love you but I get knocked down,” hits with purpose and urgency, while restraining itself to a slow and leisurely tempo. “Knocked Down” shows that Granduciel actually has valuable pop sensibilities, they just simply so infrequently tapped into on this record.
It simply seems as if The War On Drugs did not put much thought into reinventing or challenging themselves on A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING . This album is a fine collection of songs, but they seem phoned in and recycled when placed next to the behemoth album that LOST IN THE DREAM was. Releasing an album so resistant to change in terms of both production and songwriting almost feels like a betrayal as a fan. Sure, not all bands have to undergo drastic stylistic change with every album they put out, but to see such a blatant example of complacency out of a band that was so eager to reinvent the wheel one album prior is disheartening. LOST IN THE DREAM remains The War On Drugs’ defining album, as I anticipate A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING will exhaust its tour cycle and then collect dust on the history of Spotify accounts that didn’t give it a second listen.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend