1Up All Night
I can tell you exactly when you know A Deeper Understanding is going to be a special album. It’s at 1:14 on the opener. Those drums hit the ground running and overtop that shuffle make a decent track into an opening statement. “Up All Night” moves with a propulsion that is usually reserved for the second track. Then comes the solo. I had a very successful tweet, liked by at least 4 people, that thanked The War On Drugs for reminding us what guitar solos are for. And what are they for? They’re for blowing your soul out your ass and into outer space.
5 out of 5
Luger Porterhouse good.
My relationship with this band is complex. Their classic rock update combined with indie rock sensibilities seems so at odds to me. But one thing is for damn sure: this is a legitimately great rock and roll band. Trying to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. But I’m still hung up on how my brain takes this music in. I involuntarily convulse at certain sounds that remind me of the music that inspired me to love punk rock, alternative, rock, indie rock, etc. I needed a kindred spirit to talk about this with. Somebody that has a complex and difficult relationship with this band as well. So naturally I called dear friend Mark Kozelek. Being a well known media gadfly has its perks, people. I told Mark about my conundrum and he sighed a heavy sigh. “Blocmeister General, this is T O U G H. Even combining our forces I fear a review of this will end in tears and acrimony. How ’bout I write a quick ditty about the song instead?” “Koz-a-rini, you are the best.” I mean what the fuck else could I say? Here’s the little song Bullseye (my little nickname for The Koz) came up with….
We were in ol’ Bloc’s shed, I heard something that reminded me of Foghat
I had no intention of goin’ out to the wooded expanse
Bloc said, “We should check it out. Maybe it’s BTO”….. I knew it wasn’t
He’s always getting in the way of my heart like that
We walked the quarter mile in silence and I could hear him chuckling
Under his slack-jawed breath
My dad told me to never trust a man that chuckled as he forest-walked
But we go back. So I went on. Regrets would come soon enough…
I have heard many sounds. This was one of the Stranger Things
And then from nowhere Bloc says, “That’s them. The War on Drugs”
I knew it to be true. My cock throbbed and I thought about better times
He dropped down on feathered pine needles and looked gobsmacked
I wanted to run but Bloc is my boy…..I needed to stay put
My feelings about the entire scenario was one of the Stranger Things
That beer guitar commercial song went on for an eternity
Like living through a summer in Modesto with only a swamp cooler
and a woman that only cares about catching QVC closeouts
I leaned on him on him. With both my body and my quivering soul
He’s strong like that
We made it through
And walked away
Less than we were before
And we’ll never be ok again
We both knew it
But I don’t grieve
For that Stranger Thing
-Bloc and Koz
When you think of this album years down the line – and if you’re like me, you definitely will – “Knocked Down” probably isn’t the first song you’ll recall. You’ll likely think of the epic 11-minute first single “Thinking of A Place”, the catchy glockenspiel riff in the propulsive “Holding On” or maybe the somehow both-muscular-and-adult-contemporary-ish “In Chains”.
“Knocked Down” is right in the middle of the album – in the middle of side B on the double LP vinyl. It’s not a statement song and it’s a mid-tempo ballad. But in accordance with The War on Drugs’ all-killer-no-filler ethos, it is still a stunning song.
It starts with an alluring chord progression on a warbly and distorted electric piano. There’s a warm tape hiss in the background enveloping the off-kilter Leslie speaker and allowing Adam Granduciel’s voice to break through like a crisp but somber ray of sun coming through the clouds.
Suddenly, the rhythm section come in and he grittily intones, “I wanna love ya but I get knocked down.” There’s enough pathos in that line to knock the listener right down with him. It’s a powerful moment, one of the best on the record and when I first heard it, I felt it in my bones. But Granduciel doesn’t milk it. He lets it be and moves on as the minimalist drums and organ continue as normal beneath him.
After a short instrumental bridge, he alters the perspective. In the first verse, there is “a star raining through the night sky like a drop” (or drug? Who knows?) and Granduciel sings in the first person – “I’m like a child and now I’m all beaten up and weak.” But in the second verse, he’s the one “raining through the night sky,” it’s some other ‘they’ who “can make it rain diamonds in the night sky” instead of him, and ‘you’ are the one “all beaten up and weak.” These subtle but intriguing changes are a mark of a good lyricist. His lyrical style is easier to understand when one recognizes it’s more about themes; words and phrases repeated and deconstructed over and over, even within one song. Though the lyrics are far from the most important or best thing about The War On Drugs, this song illustrates the care and skill Granduciel puts into even that which is not a weight-bearing part.
After another, longer instrumental bridge, the chorus returns accompanied by a lead guitar line that is drenched in effects and dirty as the day is long. The guitar hinted at in the little vamp before is back in full force. The seeming contradiction between the melancholy organ ballad and this straight-up nasty guitar tone is indicative of the distinctive production choices made throughout the album. The guitar sings in harmony with Granduciel rather than the more typical call-and-response and it shifts between straight harmonizing the vocal line and veering off into a near-countermelody.
Finally, the band drops out and a couple bars of solo piano take us out with a romantic coda perfectly setting us up for the whiplash rollercoaster start to “Nothing To Find”. It’s my favorite song sequencing choice all year and just one example of what make this such a goddamn great album.
6Nothing to Find
The needle finds the groove and never lets up. “Nothing to Find’s” shimmering keys are combined with a backing beat and vocals that both pay tribute to Henley and Petty in the best way possible. Granduciel’s barely there in the mix vocal delivery makes you do a little bit of work to get to the lyrics, but the highlight here is the layering, not necessarily any single track. The War on Drugs have taken a fairly commonplace sound, and somehow managed to make it completely singular, making the comparison to classic, dusty, radio rockers feel simultaneously apt and cheap.
7Thinking of a Place
“Never one to skimp on track 7 (a.k.a. The God Track)…”
(excerpted from The Blocland Review: Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy”)
The above quote was originally written about the immensely talented best friend of our site’s namesake, but could just as well apply to Adam Granduciel.
The War on Drugs have always appreciated the art of strategically placed instrumental tracks within their albums. There were two on Wagonwheel Blues, four on Slave Ambient, one on Lost in the Dream and now none on A Deeper Understanding. Interestingly enough, across those first three records, track 7 has always been occupied by one of those instrumental tracks. Perhaps Granduciel was under the pressure and felt he was not yet at the level to put words in the sacred track 7? Perhaps. But now…
“Thinking of a Place” is the closest we get to experiencing those instrumental tracks we grew to love on previous The War on Drugs albums. The first forty seconds float by and give way to a slow burning track that feigns an early ending five minutes in. The crazy part about this song is had it ended after those five minutes, it would still be top tier The War on Drugs. In large part because it would then be one of the shorter yet effective songs in their discography. Instead, it strums its way back into gear before kicking the door wide open at the halfway mark. Angels rush through the open doorway with buckets of holy water aimed at your face. As the soaring guitars baptize and cleanse thine ears, The War on Drugs reel back to traverse the longest song they’ve ever crafted in their career.
Even as you think that it’s winding down, wind fills beneath thy wings, lifting the spirit aloft once more. On high, a radiant gaze cuts through the void. A pathway is illuminated as a church piano rings in the distance. Past thinking, past looking, the present connects with the future through infinite space. The haven within the head. That place welcomes its first visitor.
“In Chains” might get a tough break, coming right after the spellbinding “Thinking of a Place”. Yet it’s the perfect anchor for a remarkable trio, which in 25 minutes goes from classic-rock ecstasy to angelic bliss to the emotional release of “In Chains”. Is there a better sequence of tracks on any album in 2017?
With two lower-key tracks coming afterward to wrap things up, “In Chains” becomes the album’s final crescendo. But it’s no conclusion. Adam speaks of aggravating uncertainty. “I’m in love / I’m in pain,” he sings, recalling the “space between the beauty and the pain” line from “Strangest Thing”. It’s catharsis before the comedown. Frustration is finally boiling over. But it’s not harsh — there’s a clear cinematic touch to the track, with that gorgeous, twinkling piano propelling things forward. One of my first thoughts was that it could replace When In Rome’s “The Promise” in that iconic I-bought-you-a-delicious-bass final scene of Napoleon Dynamite.
Meanwhile, “In Chains” has a loose structure that requires a few listens to nail down. That stunning explosion of sound at 2:43? Only happens once. We’re set up to think we’ll hear that “chorus” again, but the song’s structure channels Adam’s feelings. It speaks to his confusion and perhaps his disappointment in not finding that elusive “deeper understanding.”
But damn does it make for a hell of a track.
“Clean Living” is a microcosm of emotion encapsulating the macro-level interactions of A Deeper Understanding in its entirety. The album repeats a haunting fear of the unknown, awaited loneliness, unrequited love and juxtaposition between light and darkness. The turmoil of “Clean Living” and its arrant distress is wrenched into six minutes of remembrance, grief, depression and then acceptance.
The introduction begins with a pulsating synth just before meeting a melancholy piano note. The sound creates a natural sensation of comfort reminiscent of a distant memory. Yet, the scant intonation in Adam Granduciel’s voice grasps for restrain: “I waited all my life to come/ running through the field when I see you/ in the end when you’re young you follow/ shadows even though they fade.”
The bass line initiates and we develop a regret toward every moment that we took our youth for granted. As children, we did not chase love, instead we found it effortlessly in all that surrounded us whether familiar or uncertain. It is the affliction of age that sets us out on a farcical search for the one, single being, who is believed to meet all our needs.
As the tempo swells, so does the percussion. Tensions build as Granduciel croons, “once I was alone in a lonesome time/ you were livin’ in my place/ when I took the train up to see you/ everything I couldn’t change”. The War on Drugs approaches unnerving loss and adaptation with a deep consternation, yet the band uses those anxieties to form instrumental complexities.
Arguably the tamest composition on A Deeper Understanding, “Clean Living” yearns to possess the listener with all the subtleties that lie beyond the organ and baritone sax. An undemanding electric riff picks out the melodious underpinning as Granduciel veraciously sings “all this living in no life”. In an effort to uncover soured expectations and ventures that disparaged, The War on Drugs reveals that heartbreak and rejection must be met with an embrace for all of life’s impermanence.
10You Don’t Have to Go
At first glance, “You Don’t Have to Go” feels pretty low stacks compared to the rest of A Deeper Understanding. Granduciel doesn’t offer us any towering hooks, cathartic sing-a-longs, or even a “woo!”. The important distinction to make is “You Don’t Have to Go” isn’t The War On Drugs the rock band. “You Don’t Have to Go” is Adam Granduciel the studio perfectionist. The track opens with sparse piano, synths, and buzzing bass. From there, it builds off of subtle additions until we find ourselves at what would be ear drum bursting volumes in the hands of a lesser producer. Granduciel is far too talented to inflict that kind of pain on us. Instead of a cacophony of blunt instrumentation, we’re swaddled in a warm sonic tapestry. And it happens without you even noticing.
I could go in and try to list off every instrument that makes an appearance, though I don’t want to do you or The War On Drugs a disservice. I’d be missing the point entirely. The track isn’t at all about any one performance. The studio magic is achieved through all of the moving parts coming together and creating a much greater whole. Only for a moment, Granduciel allows for lead guitar to take the spotlight. None of that time is used to showcase any of arena-ready guitar heroics you’d expect on the closing track of a rock album.
On “You Don’t Have to Go”, Granduciel uses his guitar the way Jackson Pollack used paint. Thick layers of expressionism are smeared over the composition. Or, maybe this is Granduciel’s musical Rorschach test designed to say more about you, the individual listener, and what you hear than what’s actually there. I hesitate to even call “You Don’t Have to Go” a rock song. The use of these “rock” instruments has far more in common with Tim Hecker ambient meditations. Or, to a more extreme example, Sunn O))). Well, Sunn O))) if they were a bit more fluid. Unfortunately, we live in a world where The War On Drugs is more likely to be linked to Tom Petty or Springsteen. Don’t get me wrong, those reference points are a fine representation of what you’re going to get. They just don’t do The War On Drugs enough justice. The anthemic, life affirming, hit-the-highway hooks and guitar leads are there, but blue collar, classic rockers never had this kind of attention to detail or level of sound craft.
Take all of that away and it would still be goddamn noteworthy. It’s quite the emotional outlier in the band’s catalogue. The War On Drugs have always dealt in heartbreak and change in vague terms. Granduciel merely thinks of places with no actual descriptors. There’s pain, but it’s always been somewhat untraceable. This time we know what’s going on. We’ve been to that place and we’ve experienced the sentiment. Whether we had the courage to actually say it out loud is something else entirely. When he sing-whispers “No, you don’t have to go, I want to make you stay/ goodbye, anyway”, it’s the most open and honest he’s ever been with us. I’m happy to report that The War On Drugs have nothing to worry about. I plan on sticking around for awhile. I suggest you do the same.
Cue “Up All Night”.
11Bonus Track: Girls & Boys
The first sound is an engine firing up and then we’re off. The sun’s out, hair blowing in the wind, guitar propped up in the backseat, blasting down the milk and honey route. An unrelenting and steady beat presses on while careening synth and guitar trade places.
It was a change in direction for the lads from Waldorf, and Girls & Boys was a statement of intent from Good Charlotte that they wanted stadium status. The Blur homage is blatant and cheeky, while the content is on point with the sad boys foundation that was building at the time. With a new wave bent to the verses and a trademark blown out chorus sing along, the boys were making sure that their place at the top of the glemo-rap pile was undisputed. But, with humble beginnings and a focus on the Little Things, it’s hard not to wonder what was lost in their quest for the top? “Losing their souls in a material world,” indeed.