Well, it’s not punchy. A Deeper Understanding, the new full-length from The War On Drugs pairs Desire-era Bob Dylan vocal delivery with layers of synthesizers and dirty guitar solos. It stretches the pop song to its longest form. There’s a lot to like, but it demands a patient listen, with just one song clocking in under five minutes. I first listened while driving through Wisconsin farmland, admittedly a setting far too sober and rural to suit an album recorded in New York City and Los Angeles.
The War On Drugs mastermind, Adam Granduciel, takes a near-symphonic approach to the arrangement, with tasty pop phrases appearing and phasing out with purpose. His scratchy guitar solos are affecting and inspired. But when it’s not center stage, the guitar is mixed low or left out, just another brick in the sonic wall. The music sounds like a pastiche of ‘70s and ‘80s rock with all the riffs airlifted out. There’s a Springsteen quality here, but The Boss is buried under a good handful of painkillers.
Some of these lyrics are hard sells, the music evoking more depth than the words. “Am I just living between the beauty and the pain?” Adam Granduciel asks on “Strangest Thing.” The songs seem to center on the person himself, navigating his own inner life and ruminating on love, travel, nostalgia.
Tone freaks and those with an ear for production will hear much to zoom in on. Recording engineer Shawn Everett proves himself a worthy collaborator. Some of the more surprising choices pay off. “Holding On” has a “Take on Me” sort of groove and some brokenhearted Neil Young harmonica adds an emotional resonance to “Nothing to Find.” “In Chains” bottles lightning in the chorus, its passion contained–but on the verge of boiling over. There is a good mind meld at play between the performers, the slog of ample touring paying off in evident musical communication. The players handle the space between phrases especially well.
An odd blend of indulgence and restraint characterizes A Deeper Understanding. The band holds back and explores the full potential of its songs. It’s antithetical to our society’s ADHD media problem, and that might be the point. The result is the opposite of radio bait, but polished enough to sound like it. »