The War on Drugs’ new album, Lost in the Dream, hit the web this month and it all feels very old school. I’m not just talking about all the synths and processors, but more specifically about the hype from a still-barely-relevant bevy of rock n’ roll critics. For the life of me, I can’t remember there being such universal praise for a record.
Not that anyone actually cares, but if you’ve read the early reviews on Spin, Pitchfork, NPR or Grantland, it would appear that The War on Drugs is creating quite a buzz in the pre-YouTube way — by garnering genuine accolades from unaccomplished, disillusioned, overeducated white guys. The rock critics have reached a consensus: Lost in the Dream is poised to catapult The War on Drugs to the big time.
In the face of these reviews, I wish I could say The War on Drugs doesn’t deserve the praise, but I can’t. I thought, and still think, 2011’s Slave Ambient was remarkable. The album, which was, in earnest, the result of Adam Granduciel’s sonic obsessive compulsivity, showcases the songwriter’s intuition for both melody and lyrics, all while filling the space with an overwhelming amount of sound that ranges from synthesizers, to drum-tracks, to every manner of guitar effect. Through all the Dire Straits-esque synth-work, the album amazingly achieves a rustic feel. If it were released in 1984, Slave Ambient would put yuppies on the dancefloor, and in 1994 it would have survived Kurt Cobain’s scornful gauntlet of authenticity.
The first single released off Lost in the Dream titled, “Red Eyes,” exists in 2014; a world where rock music may mean less to music buyers than the actual genre of rock (I blame Nickelback). “Red Eyes” picks up where Slave Ambient left off, as Granduciel has zeroed in on a wonderful niche. Listen to the track over and over again — as I have — and you’ll hear something new every time. “Red Eyes” begins with an emotionally-ambiguous synthesizer, followed by drums and a guitar riff that hint at, but don’t yet reveal, the emotional slant of the song. Then, the vocals, which are stronger and more affected than on Slave Ambient, deliver the desperate, yet hopeful tone that carries the track. In a song, abound with high-tech effects and processing, Granduciel’s guitar work, through tasteful melodic riffs and distorted solos, keeps the music grounded. The lyrics masterfully walk the tightrope between trite and disconnected, and the healthy dose of “whoos” could make any listener want to subvert a Mid-western town’s anti-dancing laws!
As an album, Lost in the Dream delivers on everything that “Red Eyes” promised, and more. My favorite thing about The War On Drug’s music is its ability to elicit nostalgic emotions. Feelings of longing for the road, bygone friendships, connection, and of course, the 1980s. Though I hadn’t yet started kindergarten when the 80s came to a close, Lost in the Dream fills me with nostalgia for the days when a rock star’s musical excesses could only be outmatched by their glamorous mullets.
Adam Granduciel’s hair length is proportional from back to front and he also avoids the excess. I can’t remember a guitar player being called a genius more than Granduciel has been in the last week. Plus, rock critics keep asking if The War On Drugs is ready for the bigtime. But I’m not sure these dinosaurs realize what the bigtime will entail for newly anointed rock royalty. The comparisons to pre-2009 The National just make me laugh — as if 2009 The National “bigtime” was anything like what “bigtime” used to be for rock bands. If a majority of NPR listeners between 25 and 45, plus a subset of college kids hear, or actually buy, The War On Drugs new album, it’ll be “bigtime.” And tell them what they’ve won Bob! You’ll earn very little money while touring incessantly for the next 3 years!
I hope those out-of-touch white guys are right. I’m excited for the success of this record, and the broader recognition of Adam Granduciel’s genius. More importantly though, I just wanna listen to the damn thing! Listen to a preview of the album below.