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The War on Drugs’ New Album Doesn’t Reinvent the Wheel

Instead, it nearly perfects it.

A Deeper Understanding, the new LP from the mischievously titled Philadelphia outfit the War on Drugs, is an album that has long felt predestined for end-of-year lists and essays claiming, lo and behold, rock isn’t dead after all. Now it’s finally here, and the fact that it almost entirely lives up to this destiny is just one of its many achievements. A Deeper Understanding is the War on Drugs’ first release since Lost in the Dream, an indie smash that topped more Album of the Year lists than any other in 2014 and won the band a contract with Atlantic. Songwriter–frontman–multi-instrumentalist Adam Granduciel has put his major-label budget to good use. A Deeper Understanding is the most exquisitely well-produced rock album you’ll hear this year, a headphones experience so intoxicating it threatens to obscure the most quietly remarkable thing about it: In 2017, Granduciel and co. have made a rock album that you can (and should) dance to.

The story behind the making of Lost in the Dream is now semi-legendary. The album was recorded over a two-year period, with Granduciel battling intense anxiety and depression, dueling perfectionism and self-doubt. What emerged was a sprawling, spacey work that dwelt in the airier reaches of psychedelia. It was gorgeous, but at times almost deliberately distant. What’s remarkable about A Deeper Understanding, then, is its full-throated vitality, a roaring ebullience and joy that never feels forced or telegraphed. The album opens with “Up All Night,” a pulsing midtempo dazzler that nestles its simple, plaintive melody against a lush array of hooks and warm, throbbing chords. “Holding On” weaves shimmering keyboard, guitar, and vocal melodies into a syncopated backdrop of bubbling drums, bass, and synthesizer lines. And “Nothing to Find,” with its wheezing harmonica playing perfect counterpoint to Granduciel’s half-whispered vocal, is so infectiously effervescent it wouldn’t be out of place on a 1970s Paul McCartney record.

The War on Drugs is one of those strange phenomena that unmistakably sound like the sum of their influences, yet I enjoy their music more than that of any of those influences. The band has strong traces of Springsteen but with none of the parodic overstatement of the E Street Band rhythm section. It sounds a bit like U2, but Granduciel’s wry and weary voice dispenses with the humorless theatricality of Bono. It bears a glancing resemblance to early Arcade Fire, but it doesn’t conflate maximalism with sincerity. Its music is sometimes described as “heartland rock,” an odd characterization since the band is from the East Coast, but Lost in the Dream was a killer road-trip record, full of sprawling soundscapes and vast open spaces. It sounded like a horizon breaking over the Great Plains, or at least what a bunch of guys from Philly imagine that sounds like.

A Deeper Understanding expands upon rather than departing from these aesthetics, but its embrace of an unconventional and distinctly synthetic sonic palette breathes new life into a subgenre often fettered by its own luddite fantasies of authenticity. For starters, A Deeper Understanding really isn’t much of a guitar record. There are still requisite solos here and there (on “Pain” and “Thinking of a Place,” to name just two), but as its cover art indicates, A Deeper Understanding is a keyboard album through and through. There are acoustic and electric pianos, organs, and synthesizers galore: ARPs, Prophets, Junos, Yamahas. None of these sounds are new, and in fact most are decidedly vintage. But they’re put to beautiful use here: They’re expansive and freeing, a fantasy of a future filtered through the past that emerges as something that sounds timeless.

Many of A Deeper Understanding’s most inspired moments arrive in its percussion tracks, long one of the more inventive aspects of the War on Drugs’ music. A striking quality of Lost in the Dream was the way it blurred lines between live drums and canned drum loops. Its drum tracks were insistent and repetitive, and often doused in studio compression. This is a technique that’s kicked around hip-hop and R&B for decades—listen to Questlove’s parts on any of the Roots’ records from the 1990s, for instance—but it’s only more recently made its way into rock, and A Deeper Understanding pushes this technique even further than its predecessor. The line between live drummer and drum machine is consistently blurry, with both sometimes coexisting on the same track. “Up All Night” features an honest-to-God Linn, the iconic 1980s drum machine that powered Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” among other classics. What results is an irresistible propulsion that fills in the gaps of Granduciel’s laconic, Dylan-esque singing style with energy and urgency.

It’s not all pedal-to-the-metal, of course. “Strangest Thing” unfolds with a spacious, stately grandeur, and “Thinking of a Place” boasts a luxurious tempo that seems to spiritually align with the song’s 11-minute running time. Perhaps the album’s prettiest track is its closer, “You Don’t Have to Go,” another ballad that sounds like Being There­–era Wilco meets late-period Warren Zevon, a meditative and beautiful ode to loss. But as rock and its audiences continue to age, the War on Drugs isn’t yet making music to put your kids to sleep to, and here’s to that.

A Deeper Understanding isn’t a perfect record. For starters, Granduciel’s songs are still too long, although I feel like I’ve been making this complaint since the disappearance of the 45 rpm single, which happened before I was born. It also isn’t a particularly groundbreaking or avant-garde album, and some will surely accuse the War on Drugs of reinventing the wheel. But really, what was the last rock album that didn’t do that? Kid A? Purple Rain? Sgt. Pepper? A Deeper Understanding is a rock record made of big ideas and stunning sounds that feels totally alive. It does its thing about as well as that thing can be done, which is no small achievement considering how many have tried their hand at it. It’s a major work by an unmistakably major band, which is everything we could have expected.

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