Authenticity is more important than originality. Yet, we value the latter more and lampoon music that sounds obviously derivative of other artists. Ripping someone off is pathetic — something that can be a hefty lawsuit — but incorporating elements of other artists is the driving force behind artistic progression. Nothing is every purely authentic: The War on Drugs, a band that wears its influences on its sleeve, embraces this wholeheartedly.  

Especially at the beginning of careers, most great bands sound like someone else before they fully grow into their distinct sound. Radiohead initially had a pretty straightforward britpop style before OK Computer shattered everyone’s expectations of rock music. Pink Floyd emerged in the late ’60s as just another Psychedelic Rock band oozing with whimsicality and dripping with LSD before releasing prog-rock masterpieces Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon. The War on Drugs began as one big love letter to Bob Dylan, and since then, everyone is quick to point this out, along with similarities to Bruce Springsteen and other ’80s heartland rockers.

By now, the comparisons have grown old. Even though Adam Granduciel, the band’s frontman and creative powerhouse, doesn’t shy away from allowing his influences to shine through, no contemporary musician sounds anything like them, not even his past collaborator Kurt Vile. Granduciel’s combination of pulsating synths and guitar hooks layered with effects has become a unique trademark in contemporary music. With their fourth album, A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs has proven that they’re capable of producing authentic work without the restraint of sounding completely original.

In 2014, Lost in the Dream shocked thousands and became, arguably, the most beloved rock album of the year. Granduciel takes listeners from the bleakest depths of depression and heartbreak — songs like “Under the Pressure” and “Disappearing” — to the relieving feeling after conquering your crushing anxiety — like the freeing melodies of “Eyes to the Wind” and the energetic optimism of “Burning.” Every emotion tied to heartbreak is present. It’s a breakup album that questions love and the pain it causes, and what it means to grow as a person.

A Deeper Understanding, a deceiving name, sees Granduciel still looking for answers to these questions in his pursuit of self growth. Despite a plethora of success following Lost in the Dream — signing onto Atlantic Records, entering a relationship with Krysten Ritter (“Jessica Jones”) and  deserved critical acclaim — Granduciel is still struggling to resolve his own pitfalls and anxieties. “I’ve been through it / I always have paranoia that I would not last” Granduciel sings on the opening track “Up All Night,” a jittery yet upbeat song that progressively builds layer upon layer of drums and synths. It’s clear from the beginning that A Deeper Understanding is by no means a resolution album where Granduciel cures himself of the same feelings of loneliness evident on Lost in the Dream.

The band released five singles anticipating the album’s release, and with each one, it became clear the album wouldn’t disappoint. “Thinking of a Place,” a sprawling 11-minute epic released earlier in April for Record Store Day, was the first glimpse to see how Granduciel had progressed over the three years since Lost in the Dream. The band’s best qualities — crackling guitar solos, heavy synths and lyrics evoking a sense of longing — were all in top form. Although dense and long, “Thinking of a Place” is one of the band’s most conventional rock songs with one of the best guitar solos in recent memory. The song embodies the imagery of a self reflective road trip through the American countryside (truth be told, most of their music embodies this cliché).

The War on Drugs packs the most weight into “Strangest Thing,” which became an instant classic among their stacked catalog. The song breaks down halfway into an explosion of synths and a guitar solo, each instrument complementing the other as if they’re part of a world class symphony. Following this is “Knocked Down,” a ballad, rare for the band, that favors piano over guitar. It’s their most stripped down and resembles “Suffering,” though it ultimately fails to dethrone its Lost in the Dream counterpart.

Unlike past records, A Deeper Understanding departs from a more atmospheric sound in favor of more conventional rock qualities. The closest Granduciel gets to this ambient style is on the closing track, “You Don’t Have to Go.” But even here, its light, ethereal feeling is achieved without sacrificing a straightforward structure, using harmonicas and real instruments to create such a lush sound. Its nearly seven minute length feels much shorter — at no point do their songs drag and feel longer than a more traditional three-and-a-half minute pop song.

The closest they get to producing another “Red Eyes,” the most successful single from Lost in the Dream, is “Holding On.” It opens with a fast paced synth hook, then leading into piercing guitars. Every aspect about it, from the vocals to the catchy Springsteen-esque chimes, makes for an accessible jam that, if maybe a minute or two shorter, could very well be a smash hit. But it’s “Nothing to Find,” an exhilarating heater of a song, that sticks out as the most vibrant. Essentially, this is the song a dad would play to pump up his son before a Little League baseball game.

A Deeper Understanding isn’t necessarily a better album than Lost in the Dream, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s one more milestone for Granduciel in his attempt to make meaning of the world around him. He has managed to gain popularity making music that is by no means the most popular style of today, a testament to his masterful musicianship. In times of joy and times of misery, The War on Drugs once again delivers an album to cope with the emotions we can’t ignore, the feelings of falling in and out of love and the harrowing self doubt we face.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *