It’s easy to be comforted by something familiar. It’s just as easy to be repelled by something imitating familiarity. The fine line between nostalgic and kitsch, sentimental and mawkish, yup and nope is one newer bands tread on the regular. A friendly, recognizable sound at an album’s doorstep is perfect way inside, but at the first hint of derivative dissembling, we’ll cry “impostor!”, turn on our heels/blog about how fake it is. The War on Drugs do this thing where they blur out all their comforting reference points, causing you to squint and and lean your head in close to find their roots and even if you were to try to pin point an defining identity to Slave Ambient, it would only be one of many definitions that would be fit to serve the album. Slave Ambient is an impressionists’ take on Americana, rendered in the abstract, creating a beautiful balance between the past and the future tenses of music.
Adam Granduciel’s stories unfold just like forefathers of American rock n roll –Dylan, Petty, et al. — where pitches are stumbled upon, highways are dreams and dreams are highways, women are named “babe” or “baby”, and perfect progressive verbs reign supreme. After years of lineup changes, including the departure of fellow singer-songwriter extraordinaire Kurt Vile, Granduciel is more forthcoming than on his previous albums, injecting careful thought and emotion into lyrics. “I thought I had him by the hand/I only had him by the gloves” drawls Granduciel on the two-chord charmer “I Was There”. It’s one of many lyrics on Slave Ambient that you gives you the sense of being comfortable in some personal prison in your car or in a relationship, resigned to sing the blues. On the lyric-heavy final track “Black Water Falls” the line “When you turn to the name you invented to keep/your identity safe from the smell of defeat” is another line that tumbles through the head for days.
Save for those two songs, Granduciel’s vocals are often just another texture swirling through the speakers, buried in walls of guitars and synths. What could have easily become another folk-rock album instead shifts to something extraordinary, using drones, loops, and ambient soundscapes to connect one forlorn lyric to another. Not only are there three instrumentals that interpolate the 12 tracks on this album, but psych jams serve as codas to the majority of the songs here so that after Granduciel finishes his story, the song just lifts off and rides on the words that built it. The three-song-suite of “Your Love Is Calling My Name” into the shoegaze instrumental “The Animator” into the arena-ready album stand out “Come To The City” is some of the best sequencing of the year on any album.
So then it’s odd that the band decided to include “Baby Missiles” on Slave Ambient, a song that originally appeared on their 2010 EP Future Weather. While it’s a rippin’ windows-down Boss tune, the ragged production and especially the 30 second fadeout sound incongruent with the rest of the album’s humming undertones. Despite that, the album still rides like a dream along the freeway and blazes forward on its own path more than it follows in the footsteps of the others.