Review: The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

By Landon MacDonald ,

You would assume, as the War on Drugs got more utilitarian the quality would go down, but as the band tossed off dynamite single after dynamite single, their dusty, well-worn vision of rock and roll has only proved more rare and valuable. A Deeper Understanding seems poised to temporarily silence the trash can “What is Rock in 2017?” thinkpieces that have enough content for a tweet, but last 2,000 words. This is rock and roll in 2017. Its pure, its full, its confident, it’s the War on Drugs.

The major label jump can be everything from alienating to enticing for fans and Adam Granduciel transition to Atlantic has seemed like a perfect fit since they released an eleven minute song as their first partnership. The band is in a place not dissimilar to Death Cab for Cutie a decade ago, a huge following, wondering if they can top their best record. Spoiler alert — they have. A Deeper Understanding is the best indie rock record of the year and in many ways, the best record in general. It is comforting and compelling in its confidence.

“Up All Night” — the obvious choice for first single (it was chosen 5th) speeds out of the gates like an 80’s chart topper at half speed. A quick builder for War on Drugs but slow in general, the song climbs steps like a 90’s electronica demo climaxing over a meticulously fuzzy guitar solo at 4 of its 6 minutes. Each piece gets layered in with subtlety as only a few are noticed. If you are listening on your phone or laptop speakers you are doing it wrong. The better the system, the better the headphones, the more you will get it. At 2:00 the track pauses, voices echo, and then it continues propulsively forward, just a quick wink, before the ramshackle pace continues through nine more tracks.

“Pain” saunters confidently, like a man in his favorite jeans and new boots, the most transparent window into the concept of the record. “Give me the deeper understanding of who I am”, Granduciel croons the title with Bob Dylan emphasis. A Deeper Understanding is a journey inside, but the article is telling. Not “a” deeper understanding but “the”. Specific love here is the ultimate definition of personal humanity, but even greater than a mere rejection of individualism, an acceptance of an explanation of self, offered only through the love found in another.

Songs hit iconic on a low play count. The opening of “Holding On” is less than 60 days old to my years, but it already sounds classic. Not just because it is made of classic elements, but the band’s execution has the confidence to pull it off. The interconnection of several guitars, acoustic and electric, and pianos and synthesizers are exercised like an airshow of moving elements, soaring across the sonic skyline. The song is essentially perfect, its runtime speeding by. At its climax, standing atop a complete sonic wall is a subtle pulsing beep, like a comet across the night sky, or the missing key alarm to a 2050 remake of a 1950 truck.

Can we just talk about the diligence of this drummer by the way? So patient, so straight, so tight, this guy would do wonders for so many bands. Never showing off, always keeping time. He is like the accountant of drumming — meticulous in his endless grooves. The polar opposite of every teenager in every garage in America trying to be like Neal Peart, where most drumming has been about movement and progress prediction. The funny thing is, look at the credits — seven different people play drums across this record. They all meld into the cohesive production vision.

Speaking of production, Passion Pit spent their major label budget on a bunch of diminishing returns’ children’s choirs almost a decade ago and Adam Granduciel is smart enough to avoid those classic pitfalls. The record sounds like a premium version of the record he made three years ago. Following the example of Elliott Smith, he used the major label budget to refine rather than expand his sound.

The weakest track here, “Knocked Down”, seems like the extra chill ballad to pad out the run time, but it still works as a respite from the volume and intensity of the previous four. “Nothing to Find” moves with a swagger like a classic rock and roll jukebox track. “Thinking of a Place”, released on Record Store Day as a two sided 12”, is presented in its spectacular eleven minute form here, feeling less a song and more a location. The song also showcases the most hidden part of the War on Drugs prism of sound — the ambient stretches. Mostly hidden on Lost in the Dream and more pronounced on Slave Ambient, here the clear, patient movements are showcased. 

The song doesn’t progress into the ambient stretch, it sputters out and shows that the soft padding was hiding underneath the whole time, like the song is just taking a quick nap or something. When the song wakes up, a beautiful harmonica solo, several more verses, and several more guitar solos continue to carry us forward. But the ambient underwear doesn’t get tossed, even some ghostly vocals are added on top. The song is confident enough to stroll along swiftly but comfortably without needing to have something to say every ten seconds, like a walk between lifelong lovers. The track fades out, like the couple walking into the distance, or even the character from the opening verse.

Look at Adam on the cover, he is the workingman’s rock star. Forever stuck in the studio tinkering. Figuring out how to make a keyboard sound one percent warmer. Maybe our ears couldn’t hear the difference between 95% and 100% done on this record, but our hearts could feel the difference. A MINUS

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