Listening to the War on Drugs, it’s easy to see what they have in common with fellow Philly artist and sometimes band member Kurt Vile. Along with Vile, the War on Drugs has pioneered a new branch of American music, some new kind of tape-hiss Americana where that white noise is not artifice but artifact, both a nod to the past and an instrument in its own right.
But while Kurt Vile has blown up in the past year or so, dropping release after release, the War on Drugs have been quiet since 2008’s excellent Wagonwheel Blues. And, at first, an EP might seem a slim return for a band that hasn’t released anything in two-plus years. But once you listen to Future Weather, it’s clear that this is hardly some holdover. In fact, if it weren’t for some dude named Stevens, this would be the most ambitious and rewarding EP in recent memory.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Future Weather is its cohesion. Like Wagonwheel Blues, these songs mesh together and churn steadily, like the road singer Adam Granduciel so often sings about. But these songs sound a little more out on the fringe, outliers to the steady folk feel of the last record. The organs on “Baby Missiles” feel like a dessicated take on the E Street Band, replacing the Boss’s working-man bravado with a stuck-in-the-middle uncertainty. The song shifts nicely into the more straightforward “Comin’ Through,” but the lead guitar is deceptively hard to pin down on the track. As the thrum of the acoustic guitar drives the song, the watery lead riff melts into ambient vibes in some places and whips up into guitar heroics in others.
That coming and going of sounds pairs well with Granduciel’s songs about transition. Much of the record feels like a document of those late-20s, early-30s years where friends start to drift off to other places, build careers, have families. Throughout these songs, buses are in between here and there, ships sail away, friends leave, relationships crumble, but behind it all is persistent connection. As Granduciel mourns these times of transition — “I wonder where my friends are going, I wonder why they didn’t take me” — there still an insistence in these songs that imply a weary hope.
The EP’s two biggest songs, “Brothers” and “The History of Plastic,” show the two sides of this theme beautifully. “Brothers” is as spacious a song as you’ll hear from the War on Drugs, leaving room for Granduciel’s voice to echo out. He’s at his most Dylan-esque here, but the way he tensely pulls on the end of every line even as he sings of people moving away, shows him still reaching out.
“The History of Plastic,” on the other hand, is a much darker affair. The usual energetic vocals are weighed down here, as Granduciel admits “I lost that feeling for you,” with a troubling resignation. But the percussion in the song breaks up the road-steady chug of the band’s other work with a multi-layered shuffle. As the song grows, and Granduciel mourns the past, you can also feel him pulling free. It’s a melancholy ending to the EP, for sure, but the way it ripples out into silence implies a moving on. Like the others he’s sung about, Granduciel is ready for the next thing.
The overall feel of the record — the ebb and flow, the floating in limbo — make it an impressive statement overall. But the War on Drugs gets to have it both ways on Future Weather. It’s a brilliant album, beginning to end, but all its pieces are as strong as the last. It may not be the full-length follow up you’d expect after 2-plus years, but it does all the things a full-length record can do, and it does them brilliantly. Wagonwheel Blues was a fantastic debut, and was perhaps the most lasting document thus far of this new Americana. I say was because, well, Future Weather is good enough to surpass it.