Being a guitar band isn’t what it used to be. The allure is gone, inflated and commercialized into something stale, even cartoonish. There have been countless variations on the idea, and it can feel like all the limitations have been reached; the walls are established, and exhausted. Do kids look at an electric guitar with a rush of adrenaline anymore? Has the mystique dissipated? Is there any need from the rebellious youth to strike a power chord with sheer volume and aggression? Despite all of this, sometime between 2011 and 2014—without much fanfare, without a lot of bombast—The War on Drugs became America’s best rock band, with a vitality spilling from six-string wielding Adam Granduciel and his group of cohorts.
The band took the mantle with 2014’s Lost in the Dream, a Secretly Canadian release that gestated through two years’ worth of recording and rewrites. The seeds were already in place, though, with the band’s previous effort, Slave Ambient. The elements were being honed on that album, specifically the manifold layering for each song that is the band’s most obvious signature. But what put Dream over the edge and into a larger cultural consciousness was something in contrast to its predecessor: Granduciel, for all intents and purposes the soul of the band, opted for less of the lengthy feedback, fuzz, and general noise that began and ended many of the tracks on Slave Ambient. Instead, the songs became more concise and were therefore able to project outwards. And with that, the band became a tighter unit both in and out of the studio.
Granduciel’s singing is an element that’s sometimes lost in the talk of vintage synths and delay pedals: he’s one of the few to capture the Bob Dylan-esque phrasing organically, to use it without being grating or sounding as if he’s merely parroting a legend. In “Best Night,” Slave Ambient’s opening track, the wording is just as important as the words themselves, a noted trick from Dylan. One of the band’s best songs, “Eyes to the Wind,” is indelible almost solely due to the delivery of the lines “And I fell away again” soon followed by the chorus line of “Let me think about it, babe.” Granduciel stretches the word “babe” and rather than it being a comical rock moment, it pairs with the melody to perfection. It’s a small moment that demonstrates the beauty of the band.
But it’s not only his structure of the words in the measure. Granduciel morphed into a songwriter with few peers with the 2014 release Lost in the Dream. He manages an impressive feat by having a simple song that sounds nothing of the sort. Ganduciel takes the intangible and gives it an emotional resonance, sometimes with the phrases, other times with the phrasing, many times with the sonic structures. Songs about anxiety, about the inability to stop living in your own head, suddenly become anthems worthy of the headlining slots the band now occupies at festivals around the world. Gone is the bravado of classic rock, the truculent power chords of punk, or the sing-along styles of former indie rock darlings turned mainstream stars. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call them an antidote to the paranoia of 2018, but a lot of people are lining up to find something–perhaps serenity, maybe understanding–in stacks of sounds in each of the War on Drugs’ songs.
It’s the production that propels the band beyond just being good. (Amazingly, none of the songs lose their that value live, either.) Every added coat is deliberate for the song; it’s a set of layers that add texture without being overwhelming or overdone. No sonic cup is overfilled. Take “Strangest Thing” one of the best tracks from their most recent release Lost in the Dream: the song starts with a cosmic blend of guitars, drums, bass, piano, and synths posing as strings; no instrument played here overpowers another. Then there’s a fade of everything but drums, bass, and sustained synths that allow Granduciel to begin (“Summer ride on the beach/Howl at the day/I’ve been hiding out so long/I gotta find another way”). The words are deceptively simple on the page, but paired with the music, there’s a depth there that brings lines like “Am I just living in the space between/The beauty and the pain?/It’s the strangest thing” into a catharsis. Perhaps the true catharsis comes later with the guitar solo from Ganduciel. It’s an experience other many bands fail to emote via guitar.
And there’s “Thinking of a Place” (Lost in a Dream). Over eleven minutes in length yet there isn’t a moment wasted. The loud, feedback-driven solo around the three minute mark contrasts with the various number of quiet verses, choruses, and bridges. The sections of “Thinking of a Place” don’t fluctuate in the loud/quiet ways that a lot of rock songs have a tendency to do in the space of three minutes or less. Instead, its expanse allows it to be many songs in one with flawless cohesion. It’s a feat that Pink Floyd would envy, but perhaps with even more introspection.
It’s amazing. The War on Drugs rock almost without “rocking,” per se; they soothe without being a soothing band. The balance of all of these parts fashions a perfectly sinewy allure.
If there’s another band that rivals them in the current musical landscape, I’d like to see them.
Note: this article was co-written with Blaine Duncan.