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Album Review: The War on Drugs’ ‘A Deeper Understanding’

The War on Drugs
“A Deeper Understanding”
(Atlantic)

“Atmospheric rock band with six-minute-plus-long songs and extended guitar solos” is just about the worst possible template for chart success in 2017. Yet here comes the War on Drugs, a long-running Philadelphia band masterminded by husky-voiced singer/virtuoso guitarist Adam Granduciel, with a long string of sold-out gigs behind them and years of support from an unlikely source: the Pitchfork set. Indeed, the group’s template is a vintage one — flashes of “Love Over Gold”-era Dire Straits, Springsteen’s more epic moments and Wilco’s whispier episodes abound — but Granduciel’s sweeping melodies and cinematic sonics are unexpectedly welcoming, beckoning to the listener like the irresistible intro to a Wim Wenders film or a binge-able TV series. Rather than pairing the group with a proven hitmaker, for “A Deeper Understanding,” the group’s major-label debut and their fourth album overall, Atlantic has allowed them to do their own thing, keeping close to the formula of their 2014 breakthrough album “Lost in the Dream,” except for the occasional jaunty keyboard line.

The album also finds the group getting closer than ever before to the transcendent moments they can reach in a live setting; previous albums found Granduciel burying his guitars in layers of effects, obscuring his formidable shredding skills. Suffice it to say that’s not a problem here, as his crystalline solos are among the album’s highlights. And while he’s surrounded himself with a gang of top-notch musicians, there’s never a shred of doubt about who’s in charge: War on Drugs is Granduciel’s E Street Band, with virtually every note providing a frame or a backdrop or an embellishment for his vocals or guitar, and the songs go on for as long as he wants: This album’s lead track is the 11-minute-long “Thinking of a Place.” (At a WoD gig several years back, we can remember watching the drummer’s face gradually contort into a grimace as Granduciel’s solo went on and on for nearly 10 minutes; he massaged his battered hands miserably when the song finally ended.)

Yet for all the grandstanding, the intensity here comes gradually and in measured steps, and while “next-generation Dad rock” is an overly reductive catch-phrase for this masterful band, broadly speaking, the shoe fits.

 

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