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Review: The War on Drugs Prove They Should Be the World’s Biggest Band on the Expansive A Deeper Understanding

“They should be gigantic,” major label kingmaker Jimmy Iovine once famously said about The War on Drugs, a band that is actually a single 38-year-old man interpreting the classic rock canon through a lens of blurred moroseness. It feels like a patently absurd statement—there are, like, two popular rock bands (Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots?), who sound nothing like The War on Drugs, and share no conceivable fan base, aside from fathers trying to relate to their children. And yet, listening to Adam Granduciel’s new album A Deeper Understanding, it’s hard not to agree with Iovine. It’s not just that A Deeper Understanding is one of the best rock albums in years, but that the music itself is so expansive and enveloping that it feels like it should be everywhere.

Granduciel has been mining this particular territory for a half-decade, writing and arranging songs that sound like ‘70s FM rock as heard from a boombox left at the bottom of a canyon. As he progressed to his most recent album, 2014’s Lost in the Dream, Granduciel honed a beefed-up sound that shed much of the atmosphere of his earlier work. There were skyrocketing guitar histrionics all over that record—most notably on the exhilarating “An Ocean In Between the Waves”—and a number of clearly delivered, almost stately ballads. You could see a path here for Granduciel to get to the place pictured by Iovine—an even further sanding and buffing of his music, to the point where it was not rock music rendered in the tones of ambient electronica but the real, pure thing.

But with A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel has gone back in the other direction, much like Bon Iver, another solo indie rock auteur who, on the precipice of a mainstream breakthrough, burrowed back into the depths of his own mind. In the vein of his earlier work, A Deeper Understanding exists inside a synthesizer haze, like the pleasant sort of hanging fog that makes a city feel momentarily like a cocoon. Though Granduciel sings about loss and longing, the album is warm and comforting, a place for both the creator and listener to get lost.

In an interview with Uproxx, Granduciel explained his recording process, which involves not what his music evokes—a group of scraggly-haired dudes jamming up a storm in search of a higher power—but instead a laborious year-long process of recording instruments separately and then layering them together. He nods at this with the album’s cover, which shows him sitting alone in front of a small organ in a dark studio, looking back at the camera with an empty gaze, as if someone had to spend a long time convincing him to peel away from his music in order to be photographed. A Deeper Understanding is pocked with images of people searching for each other but never quite finding what they’re looking for, as if the world is a series of identical planes where individuals can move alone but never interact. Granduciel’s songs are about sadness but never quite sad themselves. You get the sense that, even more so than with most artists, the creation of his music offers a therapeutic quality, a task into which time can be poured and something can be achieved. 

This transfers to the listening experience, too. A Deeper Understanding is 66 minutes long, but could be double that, its songs bleeding into each other and looping back again, giving it a transportive, mind-altering quality. The 11-minute “Thinking of a Place” may have felt unwieldy as a pre-release single, but it eventually reveals itself as a tender journey unto itself, a slow-moving but minor epic in which pathos is wrung not from wailing guitar solos but a wheezing, sighing harmonica. It’s followed up by “Clean Living,” in which the catchiest melodic bit is the gentle plucking of a bass that feels like it’s floating past you in the breeze.

Still, the album’s strongest moments are its loudest. There is “Strangest Thing,” which is a shimmering dirge that builds itself up into a thunderous headbanger in which guitar solos shoot off like Roman candles into the night. Best, though, is “Nothing to Find,” a classic War on Drugs highway screamer, which derives its thrills from the adrenaline rush of careening recklessness. Granduciel even nods at the history of this specific sort of song within his own catalog by playing a lick of that last album’s “An Ocean In Between the Waves,” but “Nothing to Find” is different, with a snaking organ and his own howling vocals chasing each other to the song’s conclusion.

One gets the sense that Granduciel could make a dozen more records in which he finds new variations on a sound that feels increasingly singular. Maybe he will. But for now, A Deeper Understanding feels like the ideal War on Drugs album—the one where the songs are the strongest and the instruments the most uniquely cathartic, and with a mist that gives it all an alluringly blinding sheen.