In many respects, the progression of a successful career in music is marked by change. Many great artists evolve and adjust their instrumentation, tone and possibly even genre in the process of discerning their creative identity.
For Philadelphia rocker Adam Granduciel and his band The War on Drugs, this creative breakthrough came with their 2015 album Lost in the Dream. But The War on Drugs’ new project, A Deeper Understanding, is the product of a band looking to expand upon an established, discovered musical identity. It is a testament to Granduciel’s evolution as a student of his own craft and a figure in rock music.
Granduciel’s songwriting contains obvious nods to classic and psychedelic rock in The War on Drugs’ discography. The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are as warranted as they are numerous. The authenticity and introspection of folk music mixed with Brian Eno’s ambient production give The War on Drugs an edge suited for today’s rock scene. Granduciel is a jack-of-all-trades: singer, songwriter, guitarist and sound engineer.
The War on Drugs’ past records found an identity in instrumental onslaughts that one would typically find on an early Sonic Youth track. Tracks like “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean in Between the Waves” from Lost in the Dream possess musical grandeur that only builds on itself through each song. The incredibly diverse musical arrangements and effortless self-reflection are the reasons these songs sound as monumental as they do. While Kurt Vile provided an element of folk and improvisation, it is Granduciel’s ambitious songwriting and embrace of the studio that has propelled the band into the music of today.
Embracing this identity, The War on Drugs goes for the home run in the instrumentally epic “Strangest Thing,” a true showcase of Granduciel’s emotive chord progressions. The record’s focus on detail is a testament to Granduciel’s inner Brian Wilson as a studio perfectionist. Every melody, lyric and progression on A Deeper Understanding is a product of an undaunted work ethic and frequent experimentation. Even at the album’s relatively lower points, Granduciel’s detail-oriented approach to recording leaves the listener awestruck.
Undoubtedly, the band’s greatest strength lies in Granduciel’s understanding of the power of the unexplainable. The War on Drugs’ songs give no hint where they will go next, which makes the 66-minute project feel much shorter. The tendency to get lost listening the record has been a trademark of the band’s success.
This ambient effect that permeates in the band’s music culminates in the dreamy ballad “Thinking of a Place.” The song’s progression feels like two distinct songs seamlessly molded together by their mysterious nature. The first half of the song slowly builds its ambient instrumentation as if the subject is thinking before the ambitious second half poses a resolution to the first.
It is easy to compare Granduciel’s songwriting to that of Neil Young’s on this track. Granduciel, however, is not Young; his grasp of the power of the studio is much more apparent than that of his idol’s.
Comparisons aside, The War on Drugs establishes independence from its influences from the offset. The band may not transcend the genre’s direction as a whole, but it is undoubtedly refining it in ways very few can. With frontman Adam Granduciel at the helm, The War on Drugs is confident in its direction. Granduciel’s vision, for now, is deeply understood.