I’ve been listening to The War on Drug’s A Deeper Understanding nearly non-stop for almost a month now. Yet, I’ve been struggling to put some thoughts about it together to share here. I love the album, so it should be easy to write about, right?
Turns out I’m running into the same problem that I think Adam Granduciel faced when he began recording this album: how to deal with the legacy of the LP that came before it.
2014’s Lost In The Dream was a classic album. It was at or near the top of just about every major critic’s Best Of list for that year. It’s my favorite album of the decade so far, and one of my 10 favorite albums of all-time. It was a perfectly constructed album: a tremendous opening track, followed up by the band’s biggest radio hit; an absolutely massive song in the middle, two more radio-worthy songs, and one of the greatest final tracks ever. There wasn’t a throw-away song to be found. It also documented Granduciel’s personal issues at the time the album was recorded beautifully. It was all about being in the depths of romantic depression but beginning to find the strength to kick back toward the surface of being a normal human being again.
Granduciel took an interesting path on A Deeper Understanding. He didn’t try to top Lost In The Dream or take his band in a new direction. Rather, he took much of the soul and sound of Lost In The Dream and worked to perfect those elements.
In terms of pure sound, I will accept arguments that A Deeper Understanding might match Lost In The Dream. This is an amazing sounding album. Three of the greatest guitar solos of the current era are on this album. Album opener “Up All Night” could have been rescued from a lost Miami Vice soundtrack with its shimmery synths and heavily processed guitar solo. “Pain” would be the best song of the year, with the best solo of the year, were it not for “Strangest Thing,” which nudges it out in each category. “Thinking of a Place” is a wonderfully arranged piece that makes you forget it checks in at over 11 minutes long. And “Holding On” is the one song made with an ear for radio, where I’ve been hearing it on a fairly regular basis.
Lyrically and emotionally it falls short of Dream, though. It lacks that centered sense of loss and despair that made up Dream. I think Understanding recalls TWOD’s 2012 disk, Slave Ambient, which had a more general sense of unease and longing. Granduciel’s lyrics are often hidden, but I found many of them on Dream to be excellent. Here the vocal are as up-front as any he’s recorded, but some of them aren’t very strong to begin with and others sound a bit recycled from older songs.
I have to admit I was also ever-so-slightly disappointed by the album simply because the five singles released in advance of the entire disk are the five best songs on it. There was no “OH SHIT!” song waiting for me on my first full listen. Three of the “new” songs are still quite good, but two songs I’m just not that into.
Those are minor quibbles, and ones that are perhaps more apparent simply because Lost In The Dream was such a flawless album. A Deeper Understanding is easily my favorite album of the year, and it will take something massive in the next three-plus months to knock it out of that spot. It closes a magnificent, three-album run for TWOD. Slave Ambient was a surprise to me, with its combination of heartland rock and ambient, electronic sounds. It was an announcement that the band was ready for the big time. Lost In The Dream confirmed Slave’s promise and was, for all the pain that went into creating it, the album most artists spend their entire careers yearning to create. And Granduciel did it on his second full-length disk! A Deeper Understanding doesn’t break any new ground, and thus to me feels like the end of a chapter for the band. They’ll tour it for a couple years, take a break, and likely spend another year working on their fourth LP. I expect that’s when we’ll hear The War on Drugs take things in a different direction.
This was indeed a tough album to write about. Reading back, my words may be a bit too harsh, or make it seem like I don’t really like the disk. That’s definitely not the case. A Deeper Understanding is a fantastic album. It’s just an A- where Lost In The Dream was an A+.