1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Pressure is a cruel mistress. Its impending presence is both the wild animal that chases us when we’re running our fastest and a trigger that, like nothing else, can tempt us to stop moving altogether. Some, like Adam Granduciel, can’t help but see this paradox everywhere, so it makes sense that it’s the figure in the crosshairs of the best album he’ll likely ever make.
In the first 10 minutes of The War on Drugs’ last album, Slave Ambient, Granduciel recited faded dreams (“In a dream you hold a knife/ In another dream you die/ It’s just a dream that we had once that went down in the night”) and encouraged himself to pull it together by loosening up (“Pick yourself up right down the line/ Lose yourself in your mind”). Revealing himself as a natural highway-dwelling rock singer while still fumbling here and there to pinpoint ideas, Granduciel was clearly right on the brink of finding his best voice, poised to drop a bomb on his next outing. That’s pressure. But by steadfastly staying true to himself, he skies over the bar with Slave Ambient’s follow-up three years down the line — an album which basically devotes its first 10 minutes to an ode to pressure. Granduciel is most himself when loose and dreaming, and though pressure lurks for him around every corner, he refuses to let it break his spirit. Laid-back? No: Defiantly laid-back. The album is, importantly, Lost in the Dream and not Freaking the Fuck Out.
That’s what enables Granduciel to devote 60 minutes of his best material to his battles in finding one lousy moment without anxiety, to slow down time for once, to beat back the relentless threat of mental illness and sound as easy as the wind all the while. He knows the dread will still poke its way through now and then; on the album’s one non-song, “The Haunting Idle”, he conducts an orchestra of a million effects to transcribe the murkier colors on the edges of the cover art — a photo of his apartment, where he spent an unhealthy amount of time holed up while writing Lost in the Dream — away from the window’s light represented in the defibrillating next track, “Burning”. There, Granduciel imagines himself on fire and struggling to keep a ship from capsizing, a concerning metaphor immediately preceded by his single most emphatic, joyous “whoo!” on an album with a lot of them.
In tune with Granduciel’s way of evoking synchronicity, there’s a cosmic truth to Lost in the Dream triumphing this year. For one, Granduciel is personally seizing the crown off the head of his musical soulmate, Kurt Vile, who made last year’s finest classic rock-rooted album and also opened it with a brilliant, 10-minute statement of purpose. (The two are former songwriting partners and owe their careers to each other.) And, for Secretly Canadian, the Indiana-based label behind every War on Drugs release, it’s a poignant landmark following the year it lost its godfather, Jason Molina, who a decade ago was doing more than anyone to keep Americana exciting. That’s a feather Granduciel can now wear in his cap (or on his guitar neck) because he has yet to crack under the pressure: a constant source of torment for which he couldn’t sound more grateful. –Steven Arroyo