By James Peppercorn, MA English Literature
Let me paint a picture: it’s 34 degrees celsius, it’s been a long, hot, steaming day in Sydney Australia. You’re 9 hours into a day long festival. The crowd is gathering, the stomping of feet on the hard, dried, dead grass is pushing dust into the air, creating a cloud that blankets the stage. The lights go down, a flickering of strobes in a wash of red illuminate the night. The stage is set. The War On Drugs take up their instruments and we are on one hell of a musical trip.
This is how I picture The War on Drugs music in my memory; vast spaces, hot days, feeling close to the ones you love in a communal arena. Seeing them in this setting at a festival implanted a love for this band which hasn’t dimmed since. The music is a ride in and of itself. Songs like ‘Under the Pressure’ and ‘Thinking of a Place’ rise and fall like the tide to reach extraordinary climaxes along the road. And it is the road where the band belongs and takes its direction from.
The classic American rock of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen aren’t long shot influences for The War on Drugs. In fact, you could say that the band have slowly taken up that mantle of classical storytelling, always running, moving to chase a dream as rock music standard bearers. The band’s past couple of albums, Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding have drenched that Americana under waves of reverb and psychedelic tinges. Their newest album I Don’t Live Here Anymore does away with the psychedelics and expanded epics, opting to go full pelt towards the closest stadium, stand on a marshal stack and turn the bombast and singalongs up to 11.
That isn’t a detriment to the quality of the band’s material, they have always been heading in this direction. It’s as though the most recent pandemic has convinced the band to push further on that path so they can get back out on the road faster. The band has seemingly taken every corner of 80’s stadium rock and melded their most ‘rock’ album to date.
The first single, ‘Living Proof’, was recorded in one take and is the most subtle and gorgeous song on the record. Not held back by the production that covers much of the album, the song has slowly grown on me as a stunning and understated ballad. The other slow ballad on the record, ‘Rings Around My Fathers Eyes’, contains some of band leader and main songwriter Adam Granduciel’s most poignant lyrics while producing one of the bands most beautiful and crushing songs to date.
Much of the rest of the record takes the opposite approach, focusing on big guitars, big choruses, big… well… everything! The focus on choruses on this album is also greatly increased from the past couple of War On Drugs records. This means that the songs are definitively more concise and fit into the classic rock mould, while losing certain long passages of experimental psychedelia which made an album like Lost In the Dream so compelling. ‘I Don’t Want to Wait’ almost feels like Phil Colins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ with the intro’s eerie vocal samples and drum machine patterns. Somehow, this makes It also one of the most intriguing songs on the record. The track floats and glides along a simple 4/4 rhythm with one of the bands best collection of guitar solos and choruses mixed into an eclectic and sound expanding track. ‘Old Skin’ is pure Springsteen ‘Jungleland’. A great crashing in of drums halfway through the song elevates the sparse opening, marking a glorious push towards eternity.
Sometimes these heartland rock pastiches don’t quite hit. ‘Victim’, despite an intriguing guitar effect filled build up to the final chorus, suffers due to its lack of momentum and individuality. ‘Wasted’ starts joyous energy and then doesn’t do much else. This does seem to pervade a lot of the record. Despite the songs being large and massive sounding, they end up being bogged down by seeming somewhat indistinguishable in their largeness. However, if you do want an album filled to the brim with massive sounding American/Heartland rock music, The War On Drugs are currently taking up the position as the best in the game.
The strongest track on the record is by far the second single ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’. It has all the bombast that covers this record in a perfectly contained, brilliant, tuneful and just straight magnificent pop rock song. With references to everything from road tripping to Bob Dylan and back to love and death, this is what great rock music is about. It’s meant to make you feel fulfilled. To feel alive in that moment. To make your heart beat and make you want to sing the melody all day. The album sometimes misses the mark on a couple of these rock tropes but that’s fine. This is a new beginning for The War On Drugs, and the record hits more than it misses. If they do keep making songs as brilliantly life affirming as ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’, then I’ll keep dancing and singing along until the dust settles.
Featured image: Atlantic Records
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