With 2014’s Lost in the Dream, The War On Drugs finally found the critical and commercial success they deserved. Anthemic tracks like ‘Under the Pressure’ and ‘Red Eyes’ invited listeners into the band’s reverb-soaked world and became crowd favourites on the summer festival circuit. However, the album came at a price: the obsessive process through which songwriter Adam Granduciel detailed his lost relationship – secluded in a studio away from his bandmates – surrendered him to severe anxiety and isolation.
A Deeper Understanding feels more connected than its predecessor. The shimmering textures created by a raft of collaborators let Granduciel’s introspective lyrics soar to new heights, masterfully moving songs from moments of dissonant tension to ruptures of euphoric hope. It is a delicate album that explores ‘the space between’: between past and future, the familiar and the new, beauty and pain. Lasting one hour six minutes and with several tracks running over seven minutes, A Deeper Understanding contains little in the way of radio-ready hit singles. But if you find yourself awake at 2am one morning, this utterly immersive album is the one to reach for.
…it evokes the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, fusing a Heartland rock earthiness with Anthony LaMarca and Meg Duffy’s dreamy slide guitar
The album opens with arguably its four strongest tracks. The glimmering ‘Up All Night’ is followed by ‘Pain’, a thoughtfully layered song that evolves a subtle riff to a satisfying finale. ‘Holding On’ stands as the album’s most obvious single; Atlantic Records must have breathed a sigh of relief when they persuaded Granduciel to trim it down to a frugal 5:50. It is also the song that most overtly evokes the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, fusing a Heartland rock earthiness with Anthony LaMarca and Meg Duffy’s dreamy slide guitar. The Eighties mood lives on in ‘Strangest Thing’, where Granduciel wonders if he’s “just living in space between the beauty and the pain”. The song’s sense of rootlessness could feel overbearing, but its rousing solos instead convey solidarity and hope.
First released as a Record Store Day single back in April, the epic ‘Thinking Of A Place’ sounds much more at home nestled at the core of A Deeper Understanding. It is loosely guided by wandering harmonica melodies that sway between dynamics as Granduciel paints a scene of balance. The album glides to its end with ‘Clean Living’ and ‘You Don’t Have To Go’, completing the hypnotic and reflective journey.
The album wears its influences on its sleeve but by no means reproduces them. Granduciel does not create the vivid characters that Springsteen or Dylan did in their music: people are hinted at, but often in terms of how close or out of reach they feel to Granduciel. The length of the songs will understandably put off some listeners, but the care put into their composition make them worth investing time in. A Deeper Understanding is a cosmic tour de force that sees the Philadelphian band cement their place at the vanguard of modern rock. Who’d have thought The War On Drugs was best waged by wurlitzer?