Album Reviews

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

on March 14, 2014, 12:01am
warondrugs_dream A+
Release Date
March 18, 2014
Label
Secretly Canadian
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd
Buy it on amazon

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”

11 comments

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Yupster (@yupstermusic)
March 30, 2014 at 3:48 am

Never heard the term “rawk” before, dig it. This was a tough album to review, but you hit some decent points and chose nice songs to feature as essential. Would have liked to hear more pointed analysis of songs and how they serve to transform the listeners landscape…also, there has to be a better descriptor than ‘heartland rock’…why not just create a new genre? That’s always fun.

danielwalkercaffrey
April 2, 2014 at 2:41 pm

True, true. I often think genres are for the birds, but I’d dub it hypnotic heartland, if anything. Thanks for reading!

jt falla
March 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm

So much one can say, but the most important personal cue to the album’s strength is my lack of want to fast forward through any middles or near endings of any of the tracks; there are no ‘bad’ tracks to skip.
I can count only about a baker’s dozen other albums that can stand up to this.
And I know Springsteen is here, but every other conscious thought I have while listening surmises: The War on Drugs needs to open for Tom Petty.

Corey
March 22, 2014 at 11:05 pm

When you have the ability to combine Dire Straits, Springsteen, and Dylan in one album you have brought all of us a little closer to heaven’s gates. I don’t think it can get too much better than this.

offendingleadstolove
March 17, 2014 at 10:05 pm

This album is complete garbage. Every song sounds the same. They just sound like Arcade Fire on Neon Bible imitating Bruce Springsteen. They go on and on with no development at all it seems. The drum beats are considerably lazy too.

I just wanted to shoot myself listening to this album.

Ariel
March 25, 2014 at 8:02 pm

I’d expect nothing less from a man with no taste — illustrated sharply by your love of Arcade Fire.

Pedro Fernandes
March 17, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Album Of The Year for me. It’s an Instant Classic.

doctortechnology
March 14, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Been streaming this album on NPR all week. Fantastic!

João Cruz
March 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Best album of 2014 so far.

JCP
March 14, 2014 at 1:19 am

How is their Chicago show not sold out?! Hard to believe.

Turtle
March 14, 2014 at 12:47 am

Excellent review. This album deserves every bit of praise it has received (and will receive, I think the praise will be coming out of the woodworks soon).