posted: March 10, 2014
You could make worse wagers than betting that War on Drugs leader Adam Granduciel spent countless hours as a teenager in his room absorbing and memorizing every hi-fi attribute on aurally immersive albums like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs.
A detail-obsessive throwback to an era when most artists cared about how their records sounded, Granduciel crafts stunning sonic temples on Lost in the Dream, throughout which music is presented in geometric dimensions and across countless layers of instrumentation, treatments, atmospherics, and vocal reverb. It’s the kind of work that demands to be experienced on a full-range stereo or, at the least, via a great pair of headphones. No streaming service or MP3 file can come close to presenting the architectural expanse that stretches out on the hour-long affair.
For Granduciel, the only full-time participant of a collective that once counted guitarist Kurt Vile as a member, the perfectionist-minded effort follows up 2011’s breakout Slave Ambient. Like its predecessor, Lost in the Dream is designed to be digested as a whole. While devoid of a narrative concept, songs unfold in a manner that suggests a progressive transformation and soulful awakening. Save for the unnecessary instrumental “The Lost Isle,” War on Drugs avoids full-on excursions into what borders on art-house film music. Not that the band isn’t tempted to dabble with moody cinematic passages.
Whether it’s the extended ambient exit of “Under the Pressure” or sprawl of the album-closing “In Reverse,” one of Granduciel’s only flaws is knowing when to recognize the moment when to fade a track out to its logical conclusion. A majority of compositions run well beyond the five-minute mark; three break the seven-minute barrier. The lengths occasionally blunt momentum and damage continuity. But sporadic editing oversights quickly give way to palatial music sculptures that intersect at electronic and organic angles and merge hallmark 80s synthesizer washes with spacey, guitar-spiked dream-pop. Demonstrating increased confidence, Granduciel lessens the textural density surrounding his singing, and vocally, more frequently comes out from behind the curtains. He primarily operates in the abstract, but most lyrics are comprehensible, and some deliveries are performed sans effects.
Such directness is manifested on the relaxed, folksy comfort of the jangling title track and cohesive, country-spiked chime of the acoustic-anchored “Eyes to the Wind.” On both songs, Granduciel expresses nervous albeit committed personal resolve and channels Bob Dylan by nasally emphasizing sentence-finishing syllables. Thematically, the tunes contrast the turbulence coursing throughout the swelling “An Ocean In Between the Waves,” during which subtle tempo upticks, propulsive bass lines, and crunchy guitar riffs underscore the uncertainty and distance marking the album’s first half.
Similarly inviting musical blends reoccur, giving songs textural shapes and rhythmic devices that correspond to Granduciel’s emotions. A purring melody, spare piano notes, and lonely echo-glazed guitar fills complement the melancholic “Suffering,” in which spiritual gospel accents drift by like translucent fog. Snappy percussive beats, milky synthesizers, and a baritone saxophone push the dance-groove momentum on “Red Eyes,” sent up with a catchy chorus and murmuring mysteriousness.
On the latter tune and anthem-worthy “Burning”—as well as several other fainter places on Lost in the Dream—the War on Drugs seemingly uses Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 smash “Dancing in the Dark” as a template, then tears it apart and rebuilds it anew, utilizing syncopation as a foundation, roots elements in the background, and modern production devices as a blank slate. While many of Granduciel’s indie contemporaries continue to essentially replicate 80s synthpop to ho-hum effect, he’s found a way to take the Me Decade’s dominant sound and make it feel modern, vital, and triumphant.–Bob Gendron