While Kurt Vile’ Wakin On A Pretty Daze earned mammoth acclaim upon its release, The War On Drugs, the band he once founded, have lurked in the shadows, biding their own time for a place in the spotlight. Adam Granduciel and Vile formed The War On Drugs back in 2003 – sweating it for five years with various members – before Secretly Canadian took them under their wing and released Wagonwheel Blues. That album introduced the bands distinctive take on roots-rock and Americana to the world, one that Granduicel has spent more than half-a-decade tirelessly perfecting. 2011’s impressive Slave Ambient successfully reinterpreted the well-worn clichés of Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan by welding it with lush, shoegazing synth drones and motoric kraurock rhythms. And even if up until now, Kurt Vile’s laid-back, stoner-rock persona has become more synonymous with this sort of ambient Americana, Slave Ambient was an unshakable testimony of Granduciel’s talent. As Steven Hyden wrote for Grantland; “If Vile is the Tom Petty of this aesthetic, Granduciel is Mike Campbell — arguably more musically accomplished, but (for now) less famous.”
If Slave Ambient was a kind of breakthrough record, then Lost In The Dream is Granduciel’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. While the album continue to mine the same ground before, it is also – by quite a margin – the most meticulously constructed and beautifully rendered work in this stylistic territory. Yet, if you haven’t previously given The War On Drugs any consideration, this album won’t necessarily persuade you to reconsider. Just as on previous albums, the music on here lives inside a narrow space of unfashionable influences. It’s “I’m On Fire” Springsteen, 80’s Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Dire Straits and this sort of catharsis seeking blue-collar radio rock from larger-than-life type of artists/bands at the heights of their commercial – but not necessarily artistic – career. But all this is subtly deconstructed and reimagined into endlessly beautiful and profound music. Take “Burning” for instance, it’s one of the albums many highlights, and you wouldn’t think a reference to Rod Stewards “Young Turks” would ever surface on this blog. Yet, the keyboard sound is unmistakably similar (or to Springsteens’ “Dancing In The Dark” for that matter), but in Granduciel’s hands they pass on emotions that are so much more than echoes of the past.
These songs are the product of Granduciel tackling depression and self-doubt after “a perfect storm of having been moving hard for so long”. When two years of touring came to a grinding halt, it suddenly left him with too much time on hand to reflect on life and getting lost in inner thoughts. Just a quick glimpse at the song titles should attest to the dire inner places Granduciel visited during this time in his life. Also, as he recently told, his depression had a lot to do with the pressure of – for the first time – having to make a record in the eyes of public anticipation. As a consequence, vastly more work has gone into this album than the previous two. And while it may sound more a full band effort than Slave Ambient, it’s very much Granduciel’s perfectionism you’re hearing – recording, scraping, re-recording, going back to demos – and in essence; “making a full band record that sounded like a full band record, but wasn’t a full band record”.
Essentially, this is an album reflecting on the troubles and self-doubt of making the album. It’s the outcome of an artist struggling with perfection and pressure, to the point of losing all perspective. “An Ocean in Between the Waves”, possibly the album’s most eloquent moment, gives a fine example: According to Granduciel, he started the song as a beautiful, haunting demo that, after bringing the band in, turned on him and became unbearable for him to listen to. He then, after 14 months, scrapped the whole thing, returned to the demo and re-recorded everything by himself. Whether you consider the process behind “An Ocean in Between the Waves” or “Suffering”, which likewise went through at least four different incarnations before ending up approximately where it began, these and the rest of the songs never feel overworked or depleted. It’s rather the opposite, as all the struggles that went into the recording, reveals a far more humane side of The War On Drugs.
The lyrics, melodies and arrangements connect with emotions on a level Slave Ambient never reached. In addition, the music is far lacquer and richer in texture, by a band more seasoned and clearer in vision and confidence. It’s also the work of a band that seems to have learned from Kurt Vile that it’s no shame in dragging a song for 8-10 minutes, if the mood requires or allows it. So with all this in mind, I’m not sure we’ll get a more flawless record this year. It’s impressive how well this album serves as a soundtrack to whatever emotion – sad or blissful – life throws at you. If you give it enough time, you would have to be a seriously emotionally-fenced not to feel something. The more I think of it, the more I realize that I love this record for the same reasons I regard The Cure’s Disintegration amongst the greatest albums ever made. It has this crushing depressive feeling to it, while at the same time being juxtaposed by astonishing dreamlike music that is anything but discomforting. The songs are big and anthem-like, while at the same time, subtle and feeble. They begin as something vague and distantly familiar, slowly revealing their elements with each new listen until they reach far deep into your gut.
There are certain albums you just know will stay with you for a long time. For me, Lost In The Dream is one of those albums. It has the staying-power of a true rock classic – inventive, ingenious, and whatever positive in- word you may throw at it. Out of the burdens of life creativity is born, and what Granduciel and his band has created, is one of the most earnest and life-reflective rock albums I’ve heard in years. It stands as Granduciel’s finest hour that putts him next to the very artists he over the years spent time channeling.