The music day I’ve been waiting on since way back in the spring is finally here: The War on Drugs A Deeper Understanding is officially out. Sadly, perhaps because they are now on a major rather than indie label, folks like me who had pre-ordered the album did not get a link to download it a week early as with 2014’s Lost In The Dream. Fortunately, the band has both released five singles – half the damn album! – and streamed the album on their website Wednesday. But, still, I was up early to download my copy and burn it to a disk to put into the player in the car. My vinyl copy should be delivered in a bit. And I’m currently streaming it on Spotify.
I’ll try to formally review it in a week or so, but my first impression is that it’s a pretty spectacular album. Whether it will hold up the way Lost In The Dream did is another question. That’s one of my 10 favorite albums ever, and one I still listen to regularly. But A Deeper Understanding sounds amazing and, at least for now, measures up to the classic that came before it.
Something a little different this week, then. The War on Drugs are critical darlings, and thus have generated a lot of press over the past week. Many pieces dive into the central irony of the band: how they build upon the sounds of mid-80s, “Heartland” rock and make something that sounds new and vital and amazing. Most of those pieces have references to the songs of that era the writer believes are touchstones for Adam Granduciel’s creations. So let’s listen to some of those classics, shall we?
“Wah Wah” – George Harrison. You can make a strong argument that Heartland Rock’s true godfather was Harrison. His first solo album, All Things Must Pass is a consistent reference point for writers tackling the modern practitioners of the sound. I know and love “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life” but had never listened to the entire album before this week. This song is amazing! Written during his brief departure from the Beatles during the sessions for Let It Be, Harrison unleashes all his frustrations with Lennon and McCartney. I’m so disappointed my parents leaned McCartney so we had Wings albums instead of this in the house when I was little.
“The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley. There’s a clear divide in mid-80s Heartland rock between the cool folks, ones you have no shame enjoying today, and the way less cool ones. I think the differentiator is the amount of synthesizers in their songs. Springsteen dabbled in synths, but was ultimately a guitar guy. Same for Mellencamp and Petty. But guys like Henley and Bruce Hornsby, who hid the guitars behind layers of synths? Nothing cool about them.
This song, though, was an instant classic and is still kick ass over 30 years later.
“Tougher Than The Rest” – Bruce Springsteen. Ryan Adams’ Prisoner album from earlier this year had much more direct sonic links to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album. But TWOD has been treading that synth-heavy territory for some time, too.
“All You Zombies” – The Hooters. Odds are you remember their name first, and laugh at it. Then you might remember their bigger hit “And We Danced.” But this is a great song, too, and Pitchfork suggests it played a big influence in TWOD’s sound. Both bands are from Philly, too!
“Poor Places” – Wilco. Not mid-80s dad rock, but the way Wilco put songs together for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was perhaps the closest match for how Ganduciel meticulously assembles his music.
“Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent. My second favorite song of 2013. TWOD’s 2011 album Slave Ambient was an experimental masterpiece. But it also had some strong Heartland elements to it, and I think my love for that album helped me fall for Phosphorescent’s Muchacho two years later.