It’s hard to be vague in rock music these days. I don’t mean rock as a blanket term, but rawk – songs founded on guitars, bass, drums, etc. Songs that you write on an acoustic, knowing damn well that you’ll soon electrify the hell out of them. Or maybe you’ll just keep the demo version. That’s cool, too.
So, if you’re a rock musician who writes a rockist’s kind of rawk, the often unforgiving music press usually wants a gimmick. Your lyrics don’t reach Darnielle or Kozelek levels of detail? Fine. But there better be something else to set you apart. Take The Men, for example. They’re not exactly great storytellers, but they bury their lyrics in an infectious jukebox squall. The words are just another instrument, as opposed to a means to an end. You forgive their vagueness. Likewise, Real Estate’s views on romance are pretty cut and dry, but Matthew Mondanile has a guitar tone that’s distinctly his. And how many modern indie guitarists can say that?
The War on Drugs have a similar vagueness about them. Luckily, they also have a gimmick. If I had to describe them in flowery music critic terminology, I’d probably go with something like “hypnotic heartland.” This hybrid has been band mastermind Adam Granduciel’s game for two albums and a handful of EPs — penning straightforward tunes about the usual journeying and perseverance covered by blue collar rock, then deconstructing it with a white static of synths and studio trickery.
That’s how I could describe them. It would be a fair, if somewhat boring, summation of the band’s past work. But it’s also dead wrong, because Lost in the Dream isn’t vague at all. It’s not lyrically specific either — there are no easily discernible narratives here, or even colorful metaphors — but there are dramatic stakes that come from someplace very real within Granduciel. And he’s figured out the perfect combination of words, music, and ambiance to convey his doubts. However, while many of the hardships found in heartland rock — and I use that genre loosely — deal with external forces such as small-town decay and oppression, Granduciel’s conflict is far more internal. Yes, much of Lost in the Dream seems to focus on a floundering romance (he broke up with his girlfriend just as he started writing the album), but even the relationship songs are abstract, viewed through an existential lens that questions Granduciel’s place in the world. When he repeatedly pleads (or asks), “You’re all I’ve got” on first single “Red Eyes”, he means it. This kind of understated sincerity lends a resonance to everything he says, regardless of whether you’re clued in to the details of his romantic life or not.
That’s not to say this is a sad record. Musically, “Red Eyes” is damn near triumphant, so much that one listener created an excellent fan-made video that sets the song to movie scenes of characters running. It’s a testament to Granduciel’s cautious optimism. If a track ever finds itself swamped by minor-chord depression, he usually makes a change to lift it out of the mire, whether it’s “An Ocean Between the Waves” gradually picking up speed or closer “In Reverse”‘s windy drone launching into a steady, full-band backbeat. Its outlook shifts as well as the music. One moment, it’s observations of “darkness overhead.” The next, Granduciel assures his lover “I don’t mind you disappearing/ when I know you can be found.” Are the words cliche? Maybe. But once again, you can’t trump honesty, especially when it blends so well with the production.
If that all sounds messy, it’s not. The War on Drugs’ trick has always been keeping the foundations of a song simple, so that there’s plenty of breathing room for flourishes, be they lyrical or instrumental. There might be a saxophone blare here, a piano twinkle there, a crystallized drone that fades away as quickly as it crept in. Opener “Under the Pressure” takes this assembly-line thesis to heart. A clatter of electronic cymbals. Then some hazy keyboards. A few seconds pass. Things morph together. Then the film starts rolling when the drums come in. “Well the comedown here was easy/ Like the arrival of a new day,” Granduciel sings, before once again contradicting his initial thought: “But a dream like this gets wasted without you.” On first listen, it’s a sonic fog that just sounds purdy. You can’t quite put your finger on why it moves you the way it does. But the more you spin it, the more you wear out that thin needle of your record player, you realize that Granduciel is discovering the problems of his life, not figuring them out or even reflecting on them. This all makes for an album that truly sounds like it’s coming to life. And the constant change puts you right there with the singer, the mutations giving you enough open spaces to walk into the haze.
Despite my repeated use of words like “haze” and “fog,” this is also The War on Drugs’ most song-oriented album. Where as Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient both devoted a third of their track listing to non-vocal, atmospheric tracks, Lost in the Dream has only one (“The Haunting Idle”), which leads into the Springsteen-on-codeine roll of “Burning”. Yeah, yeah, that makes me the umpteenth critic to compare the band to The Boss, but it has to be said. Hell, Springsteen was just about Granduciel’s age when he wrote “Dancing in the Dark” (“Burning”‘s closest musical cousin). But while Bruce was growing concerned with cranking out socially conscious songs at 34, I’d be surprised if The War on Drugs ever became any sort of political band. Granduciel is too obsessed with the personal, at least until he figures things out. Then again, do any of us, even at our happiest, really figure things out? Probably not. But as Lost in the Dream proves, the journey can still be a transcendent one.
Essential Tracks: “Under the Pressure”, “Red Eyes”, “An Ocean Between the Waves”, and “In Reverse”