The War on Drugs is a musical universe all its own, constantly and rapidly expanding. The band started with the white-noise Americana of debut Wagonwheel Blues, followed by the gauzy layers and sound experiments of the Future Weather EP. Their next LP, Slave Ambient, made room in their intricate sound for turns at barroom blues, hints of shoegaze, and other genre tangents. Lost in the Dream, their last record, is an hour-long visit to some new astral plane, the songs taut and punchy at their core, but unraveling and stretching out in all directions to dazzling effect.
So while it hasn’t been a consistent, in-one-direction expansion, main member Adam Granduciel has found new ways to stretch out and experiment with the War on Drugs’ sound on each release. It’s a beautiful sound, but also an uncompromising one, building a groove that can surround you if you’re open to it, or leave you behind if you miss the sweet hooks, the anchoring details in the band’s songs. And now it’s led the band to a surprising place in the age of streaming music services. After years on Secretly Canadian, they’ve signed to a major label, Atlantic, to release their new album, A Deeper Understanding.
Ten or twelve years ago, a glut of rising indie bands jumped to major labels (think the Decemberists, Interpol, etc.), and that seemed like a boon for the bands and a last gasp for the labels as the internet changed the way artists built fan bases and the industry made money. Now, that move comes with hardly any sellout stigma (it’s an often reductive accusation anyway) and more a question. Is this a way forward for bands in the age of streaming services that short the artist on money? Is there still a way to make a good living in that gray area between the major labels and the indie world?
The album itself, thankfully, plays like it isn’t concerned with those questions at all. There is no sense of the pressure of outside expectation, but instead there’s the demands the band places on itself to move forward, to push its sound and songwriting in new directions, to keep the tension in these atmospheric songs alive. And make no mistake, A Deeper Understanding is a grand statement, an expansive and all-encompassing record from start to finish. Fans might have guessed this was coming back in April, when the band released the 11-minute “Thinking of a Place” on Record Store Day. But in the context of the album, that song isn’t some enormous centerpiece, but rather falls in well with these other wide-open songs, becoming another linked part of the landscape of this record. And that landscape is one that seems to exist in limbo, between going off in search of something and the moment where you may find it. The worry that the search never ends, or ends fruitlessly, coats the entire album, as Granduciel sings about being stuck, as he puts it on “Strangest Thing,” between “the beauty and the pain,” while trying to move from one to the other.
The album actually starts not with seeking, though, but with the idea that even finding something won’t necessarily end the search. On “Up All Night,” Granduciel’s voice nearly cracks when he sings, “You see it’s right here, it’s glowing / It’s not some feeling I can shake.” But by the time we move to the second track, “Pain,” the worry shifts from the here and now to the future, to where we could go. “Am I moving back in time,” he wonders, “just standing still?” And this search for something — meaning, understanding — is not always so abstract. It shifts to relationships as well. On the beautifully haunted “Knocked Down,” Granduciel looks at the way these internal anxieties can wall off relationships. “I want to love you but I get knocked down,” he sings, as if something inside him kills the desire before it gets going. But on “Nothing to Find,” he shifts the focus to the other person, to when “you were standing in my door,” but never — it seems — came inside. Like so many things on A Deeper Understanding, this person and that connection is just beyond reach.
The music itself reflects these anxieties, but also transforms them. “Nothing to Find” is the most propulsive track on the record, but its breathless pace moves from bracing to frenetic, wild. Guitars puncture and wrap around the insistent rhythm of “Holding On,” but then sweetly open up and cascade into a huge chorus. “Thinking of a Place” brilliantly moves from wistful to exhausted, and then to mournful when guitar solos bust the middle of the song apart. But when the song comes back together, its bleary-eyed thrum has somehow shifted from exhaustion to catharsis. And this is the album’s great move. It delves into anxieties without giving into them, and the music builds a bridge instead to something beyond that cul-de-sac. Closer “You Don’t Have to Go” isn’t a bright end — Granduciel still thinks “Love is a bird I can’t even see” — but as the song whips itself up into a sweet storm of keys and guitar, this feels like a pain that can be overcome, dealt with in some way. By record’s end, Granduciel has closed the space between the beauty and the pain, melded one with the other.
The music, with its endless reach for some beautiful cosmic space, is the perfect canvas for these lyrics about coping. And maybe that’s why this also feels like the band’s most patient record. Lost in the Dream was also expansive, but it piled layers on and bled them together into a kind of quaking blur. Here the parts in these songs have room to stretch out and breathe. The guitar work here is especially strong — check the dark squalls that quietly bloom up on “In Chains” or the way the layers of guitar spin and fall around each other on “Pain” — and the keys carve out huge chunks of atmosphere on top of the spacious rhythm section that holds these songs up. A Deeper Understanding is an epic, panoramic record, but its effect is an intimate, personal one. The way these song stretch out make them grand, but they still leave space for you, the listener. The intricate layers here won’t pile up and smother you with sound. Instead, these are songs that fill the lungs.