Being Samantha Cameron's favourite band is a strange badge of honour to have bestowed on you if you're a bunch of slightly grizzled Americana rockers. As it was, the former PM's wife professed her love for The War On Drugs in 2015, a year after their breakthrough album ‘Lost In The Dream'. It's easy-listening, drive time bliss was admired by BBC 6 Music-loving mums and East London hipsters in equal measure.
Sure, there was a bit of a backlash against the band from some people. Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozalek called them the “whitest band I've ever heard”. But for those who started calling the band boring, it seemed like they had forgotten why The War On Drugs broke through. Little reminder — they make the sort of soundtrack music that can lift a work commute into a magical, epic quest.
At first, new album 'A Deeper Understanding' seems to be business as usual for the Philadelphia band. From the off, 'Up All Night' gives you a big warm hug full of synth-fuelled loveliness. They're regularly compared to Bruce Springsteen, and yes, their dreamy heartland rock evokes 'The Boss' in his ‘80s prime, but there's also a lot of Peter Gabriel, especially in lead singer Adam Granduciel's gruff falsetto, as well as the atmospheric jangliness of Mazzy Star.
However dreamy the music may be, mind, it's not all quite so heavenly. The main distraction is how overwrought it all is. This is especially prevalent in Granduciel's lyrics which he sings in whispered reverence. We understand that he is searching for some 'deeper understanding' but he paints these thoughts in such broad strokes that they lack any precision, and ultimately any connection with the listener.
We want to hear about backward town place names and tales of hopeless romantics. Instead, we get Granduciel mulling over how silent the sea is. We then also kind of wish the music was a lot more dynamic, especially when the running time is over an hour. The pace throughout the album is pretty constant — this strange languid state like tootling along the highway at the same speed for an hour — fun at the start, but after a while you're struggling to keep your eyes open.
When the band do attempt to change the tempo as with mid-album track 'Knocked Down' it's a step too far in the opposite direction and then you're unwelcomely jolted back into consciousness by the chug of 'Nothing To Find'.
Alas, this is The War On Drugs formula, and you can't say that songs like 'In Chains' or 'Pain' aren't beautiful, but for any fans looking for progression, you'll be searching for a while.
Words: Ricky Jones
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