Adam Granduciel is a rare musician, striving to be an old school rockstar yet hyper-focused on gear, sound, and the technical aspects of production. His music with the War on Drugs is immensely crisp, with each sound that comes across headphones or speakers focused upon with careful detail and intensely labored over. On stage, Granduciel rocks skin tight jeans and sports hair that reaches his biceps. Over the course of a show, he’ll play seven or eight guitars, likely the only person in whatever venue his band’s playing in that will notice the difference. But whether we’re paying attention or not, these details matter. The War on Drugs are America’s great modern rock band because the infinitely meticulous details of their arrangements are hidden from plain sight; what floats across to the listener is the open road wonder of their music, the unabashed anthems that have propelled the band to near-unanimous critical acclaim and a major label deal with Atlantic.
Granduciel began the War on Drugs project in Philadelphia back in 2005 with his buddy Kurt Vile. They released their debut, Wagonwheel Blues in 2008, which drew many a comparison to Bob Dylan due to Granduciel’s nasally, straight-ahead vocal approach—a tic he would grow out of on subsequent releases. Wagonwheel Blues opens with “Arms Like Boulders,” which is a top-five War on Drugs song and features Granduciel’s best lyrical verse to date: “There’s a song you hear on the radio/It’s a funeral march/So you change the channel/But it’s all you hear/As you’re driving up the 101 from Mexico to California/And yeah! There’s no snow/When you’re looking for your sweetheart.” In that little story lies the War on Drugs’ entire mission. Namely, to link together the storytelling of old folk poets with the top-down convertible ambition of classic rock. Granduciel has never deviated from making this the core tenant of his band’s mission, and because he’s yet to stray from this path, he’s gotten better and better at perfecting it.
The band’s 2014 breakout, Lost in the Dream blended every late-’70s and early-’80s rock sound imaginable, creating an album unabashed in its embrace of this version of arena rock. In the age of irony, it was a candid relief. After the success of Lost in the Dream--the band went around the world twice promoting it-- the band signed to Atlantic Records, and any skepticism thrown towards the major label leap didn’t quantify the purpose of such a move. A bigger label gave Granduciel access to bigger studios, more toys, and better equipment. The result is A Deeper Understanding, the War on Drugs’ grandest statement within a discography full of such aspirations.
The record begins with “Up All Night,” and at six-and-a-half minutes, is, like most War On Drugs songs, a song that feels short—or, rather, not long enough. “Up All Night” builds with the warmth of strings that recall a tuning orchestra, riding the skipping pace of disco drums and a hypnotic melodic line that instrument after instrument mirrors. This is Phil Spector’s wall of sound in a modern rock band setting, an impenetrable force that rises up behind Granduciel’s hushed yet achingly assured voice.
A Deeper Understanding is a quieter jump from Lost in the Dream than Dream was from Slave Ambient, although Understanding is exactly what its title suggests: namely, a bolder, clearer knowledge of what the War on Drugs does so well. In that sense, it’s the band’s finest work to date. “Thinking of a Place” lasts eleven minutes without feeling a moment too long, moving from down tempo melancholy to the best tonally sounding guitar solo since “The Chain” to pastoral folk...within its first five minutes. A Deeper Understanding is crammed with ideas, as Granduciel tries to play with all of his shiny new gadgets at once. In lesser hands, it’d sound like a mess. But Granduciel has always been a studio wizard; a big fish in a self-built pond—no one else would make it right. The recording space got bigger, and with this room for growth, the band digs into their strengths, less flashy than Lost in the Dream’s shimmering warmth because this is what we’ve come to expect from the War on Drugs.
The album ends with “You Don’t Have To Go”—it’s a shame we do, isn’t it?—the album’s most beautiful sentiment, an unabashed ode to the War on Drugs’ discography, an amalgamation of a career spent unafraid of flying too close to the sun. The track builds and falls the same way most War on Drugs tracks do, but there’s a certain bliss that comes through as the drums grow in pulse, hi-hats awash all over the mix, vocals coming from everywhere, and eventually, the arrival of Granduciel’s trusty, and at this point, dusty, harmonica. It’s everything the band does well, chaotically mashed together into one finale, and yet it sounds clean and controlled. A Deeper Understanding is a grand, carefree, distinctly American statement that only happens with a holy devotion to the minutiae. Concealing the details within the massive landscape has always been Adam Granduciel’s grand mission. On A Deeper Understanding, he’s accomplished it.