Review: The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream

War on Drugs Lost in the Dream
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opinion by BRENDAN FRANK

If we’re to look at the methodology of guitar music, we’re within Zeno’s reach of the point where every possible input has been tested to some degree. The debate over whether rock and roll is somewhere between dead and dying has intensified as of late; even titans of the field are feeling the need to come to its defense. Either way, I don’t think you could find many who would argue that there hasn’t been a sea change for the genre in about 20 years – unless you’re willing to consider nu-metal and post-grunge as innovations, which you shouldn’t be.

The challenge, then, lies in finding a particular permutation that’s allows an individual to meaningfully cleave off from their predecessors. Adam Granduciel understands this concept better than most of his peers, and makes a concerted effort to avoid replicating his influences in favour of building off them. Any time there is mention of the man or his band, The War on Drugs, allusions to Dylan, Henley, Springsteen, Petty and Mascis can’t be far behind.

Lost in the Dream, the War on Drugs’ third full-length, is a record cut from illustrious cloth, but that’s by no means a sticking point. Granduciel has found his permutation, and mastered it. This album is derivative in the best way it’s possible to be so: It never makes you pine for the heroes of yesterday, it breathes new life into old ideas and personalizes them. But the real reason this album is such a triumph is that inspired songwriting will never become unfashionable; Lost in the Dream is overflowing with the stuff.

It goes without saying that Lost in the Dream draws from nearly every big name rock star you’d care to name. While the best pop songs tap into some aspect of the collective experience, Lost in the Dream wastes little time establishing a pattern of lonely introspection. Granduciel is feeling his way through life, while shamelessly plugging into the same serotonin-pumping jubilance that makes a hit song a hit song. The music on Lost in the Dream is uplifting, occasionally joyous, in direct contrast to its insular lyrics. Even when he’s in the presence of others, Granduciel is isolated. More often than not he’s addressing someone directly, or recalling a shared memory, and his journey inwards allows his personality to shine through.

When he set out to start Lost in the Dream in 2011, Granduciel did so with input from his bandmates, long-running bassist Dave Hartley and pianist Robbie Bennett. Uninvolved with much of the writing/recording of the band’s excellent sophomore effort, Slave Ambient, Hartley and Bennett were, uh, instrumental in building Lost in the Dream from the ground up. A narcotized blend of krautrock, Americana and sun-soaked dream pop, this album is meticulously written and produced, but the detail-rich arrangements don’t feel fussed-over. Instead, the songs are fleshed out, well-oiled and accomplished, preserving most of their momentum even as they ride on into extended runtimes.

Bennett’s presence in particular is felt immediately, as he anchors the wafting, ambient Americana of opener “Under the Pressure”. Even amidst the featherweight textures, Granduciel’s words carry weight. “When it all breaks down/And we’re runaways standing in the wake of our pain/We stare straight into nothing/But we call it all the same”, he sings. Bennet’s work offsets some of the gloom and provides an easy entry point into an album that has a lot of sorrow under its surface.

Lost in the Dream is split down the middle between pensive numbers that slowly imprint themselves with multiple listens, and high-energy jams that hook you in and refuse to let go. “Suffering” qualifies as the former, with Granduciel channeling former bandmate Kurt Vile, stabilizing the album’s recurring themes of regret and renewal with some evocative prose: “Like a snowflake through the fire/I’ll be frozen in time”. Then there’s “Eyes To The Wind”, a strikingly overstuffed ballad with the record’s thesis at its heart: “I’m a bit run down here at the moment”.

But Lost in the Dream is never more captivating than when it’s rocking out, delivering anthems in the making. “An Ocean In Between the Waves” brilliantly recaptures the spirit of 80s pop radio with relentless percussion and a searing guitar solo that stands among the best in recent memory. With its warm, reverb-rich production, lead single “Red Eyes” is a bracing journey that slowly expands until you think it’s about to burst. And then it does, spilling out exuberant, molten riffs and resonant melodies.

All told, The War on Drugs have a little something for everyone, yet they never feel like they’re making concessions. In reimagining the vision of his idols, Granduciel has put his own stamp on a storied musical lineage. The real pleasure comes from tracing the growth that the project has undergone as he continues to let us venture deeper into his own mind and heart. Its nerves are uneasy, but Lost in the Dream stands as Granduciel’s most open-armed record yet, filled to the gills with selfdom and sprawling musicality. B+

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