Philadelphia band The War on Drugs return with A Deeper Understanding and seek to top 2014’s Lost in the Dream, an album so superlative that many, including yours truly, named it album of the year. On that last outing, chief songwriter Adam Granduciel and co. offered a widescreen update of the classic rock motifs employed by heavyweights such as Dylan and Springsteen. Those familiar touchstones remain steadfastly intact on this new album, such as the “Born to Run” evoking glockenspiel of “Holding On” or the Mark Knopfler style smooth guitars of “Pain“. But tucked within what at first glance may seem like traditional rock songs, are some very modern details which keep The War on Drugs from merely regurgitating cliches. Sounds like the bouncey drum machines and driving synth bass of “Up All Night” or the ambient intro and interludes of the spacious “Thinking of a Place” mark A Deeper Understanding as a collection of tunes that could only have been created in 2017. If you listen carefully, there are quite a few studio flourishes cribbed from the cheat sheets of today’s electronic music producers. Guitars and keys are slathered with reverb until they recede to an infinite vanishing point and Graduciel knows how to use repetition to his advantage on the builds of “In Chains“, which somehow sounds like a cross between a chill club track and Bruce Hornsby, complete with Phil Spector via Eddie Money drum breakdowns.
Overall, I can’t say that A Deeper Understanding really expands upon or takes The War on Drugs’ music to another place, but I do think they have achieved what they set out to accomplish and have reached a new pinnacle. The production on Lost in the Dream was already meticulous, but here they really have taken their craft to its logical endpoint. Every instrument is expertly placed and finessed, each part of every song effortlessly flowing into the next. All of the pieces interlock with ease to create an enveloping wash of carefully calibrated sound. If you’ve been wanting some new reference tracks to test out or show off your speakers, be they Aperion or otherwise, look no further. If something sounds a bit off, it’s not these recordings, it’s you. While there may not be anything as catchy as “Red Eyes” or “Under the Pressure“, songs like “Up All Night”, “Strangest Thing” and “Nothing to Find” have hooks big enough to stick with you. Sure, merely perfecting the sound they have been working on for much of their career could be seen as a safe bet, but when everything is meshing as it does over the course of the tracks here, you really can’t blame the band for offering the most polished version of what they do best. Simply put, this album sounds fantastic, and that combined with another group of well written songs is enough for me to say that not only is A Deeper Understanding a success, it is once again a contender for album of the year honors.
In addition, there’s an x-factor at play that makes this music more than just the sum of its parts. On paper, a lot of the songs are similar and the lyrics can be obvious at times, such as following up a line like “I’m in chains” with “I’m in pain” for instance. But in the end none of that matters, because beside it being the sweetest sounding production this side of an elite artist like Beck or Radiohead, in some respect The War on Drugs are the closest thing we have to a contemporary “straight up” rock band. Sure you could argue that bands like Foo Fighters or Green Day may be the ones filling this hole, but those bands have been around for more than 20 years, they are basically classic rock now. The War on Drugs on the other hand is a band made up of guys a couple years younger than me, but who make music that probably also speaks to guys who are a little older than my forty one years. Which is to say, they are the new reigning champs of hipster dad rock. And I say that without irony, it’s a title that bands should aspire to, the world needs dad rock classics, probably more now than ever. And so it follows that A Deeper Understanding is a dad rock masterpiece, right up there with Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky or Stephen Malkmus’ Real Emotional Trash. It’s a Sgt Pepper for your Weber wielding neighbor who’s looking for a spare moment to crack a brew and enjoy some languidly well crafted tunes, which for better or worse is an accurate description of me these days.
I will also add that this is probably the last time this particular juggernaut will pay off. You can only perfect the marriage of 70s-80s rock with today’s techniques for so long and I really don’t see the band improving on their execution of this artistic vision. The next time around I think the vast majority of their audience will be hungering for something a little different. But for now, let’s fire up the grill one more time and enjoy the waning days of summer, gather what warmth we may from the last glowing embers of both and raise a glass to the auditory massage that is the sound of A Deeper Understanding. It’s a dad thing, and we hope you understand too.