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SPIN Essentials

The War on Drugs Conjure a Gorgeous, Wide-Open Claustrophobia on ‘Lost in the Dream’

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Label: Secretly Canadian

To deduce the overarching themes of this Philadelphia band’s third album, just scan the track list, which almost reads like a cry for help, given that War on Drugs mastermind Adam Granduciel is evidently “Under the Pressure” with “Red Eyes,” “Suffering” while crossing “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” “Burning” and on the way to “Disappearing” “In Reverse.”

All of which is to say that, yeah, Lost in the Dream is less than a merry affair. Between the songs’ obsessively recurring lyrical images (pain, darkness, disappearance, broken hearts) and the real-life backstory — Granduciel reportedly split with his girlfriend in the early stages of putting the record together — it’s tempting to take this as a breakup album focused more on the Lost than the Dream.

And yet the result is anything but the downer you’d expect from all that. At the risk of sounding like one of those resiliency-of-the-human-spirit movie trailers, it’s a spectacular example of channeling personal catharsis into great art. One particularly telling little moment happens during “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” a song whose propulsive bassline will put you in mind of very fast movement over water. Granduciel notes that he’s “in my finest hour,” which leads him to wonder, “Can I be more than just a fool?” Then he answers his own question during the song’s extended instrumental outro, wordlessly speaking in tongues while cranking away on guitar. About a minute from the end, voice and strings merge, and he lets out a triumphant “WHOO!” — one of several such whoops that pop up throughout the record. In realizing just what he has achieved here, Granduciel seems to have surprised even himself.

As on Slave Ambient, War on Drugs’ landmark 2011 album (and first full-length without co-founder Kurt Vile, also absent here), Lost in the Dream features prominent contributions from other players, including bassist Dave Hartley and pianist Robbie Bennett. And while it does feel like more of a “band” effort than past efforts, the mojo here still comes from the way Granduciel puts all the pieces together. If Slave Ambient represented a breakthrough, this one is an out-and-out star-maker that should rank among the year’s best albums. Simultaneously spare and just as fully fleshed out as it needs to be, Dream is a perfect distillation of Granduciel’s wide-open claustrophobia. The sound is more expansive than ever, even as its maker’s songs seem more personal and less universal.

Granduciel’s wounded-but-still-standing yelp remains an amazingly evocative instrument, landing somewhere between Bob Dylan’s yowling sneer and the road-hog snarl of Steppenwolf’s John Kay. From track to track, his voice seems to occupy different pockets within the mix, registering as another sound effect in the overall sonic context. It’s also layered into the arrangements so cannily that you don’t even notice how wordy these songs are at first listen; it’s kind of stunning to see printed lyrics and realize just how much verbiage gets crammed in. “No one sees me when I’m out here,” he declares from deep within the swirling beats and textures of first single “Red Eyes,” and he’s not kidding about hiding in plain sight.

Mostly, Granduciel testifies about how he’s holding up under the strains of various burdens — feeling “a bit rundown here at the moment” in “Eyes to the Wind,” and “tryin’ to get some rest” in “Burning.” The plaintive minor-key flourishes of keyboards, synthesizers, and saxophone do more to set that mood than any of the lyrics, and sometimes words aren’t required at all. “The Haunting Idle,” an instrumental that serves as a breath-catcher three-quarters of the way through the running time, has a vibe similar to some of composer Thomas Newman’s film scores; Granduciel’s ambient guitar twang elevates “Suffering” and the title track.

For all the atmosphere these 10 songs carry, plenty of them qualify as anthemic, too. “Burning” chugs along like one of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.-era synth-pop hits, and some of the vintage keyboard textures wouldn’t sound out of place on your ’80s-new-wave Pandora channel. But you can push forward while looking backward: On the album-closing “In Reverse,” Granduciel’s final utterance before another long and stately instrumental fadeout is, “I’m moving.” Keep up if you can.