In the songs of Adam Granduciel, it can feel like it’s always 3am. His lyrics contain just as many references to darkness – both literal and figurative – as they do to his desires to find a way out or maybe just get a little rest. But clearly The War On Drugs’ main man is used to the state of mind that typically accompanies the wee hours, which is not so surprising given his reputation for painstaking perfectionism. Among his other enemies of sleep are the feelings of anxiety and isolation that he expressed so starkly in the most dimly lit passages of Lost In The Dream, the Philadelphia band’s moving, mesmerising and much-lauded third album that hogged the top spot in best-of-year lists (including Uncut’s) in 2014. Whichever inner demon deserves the credit, it puts a long stretch of highway in between him and the dawn’s early light.
Sure enough, A Deeper Understanding opens with the first of several new tracks that situate Granduciel back in the time and place he knows so well. In “Up All Night”, his agitation has him “spinnin’ round on the floor”, as he sings in a raspy murmur. A gorgeous exercise in yearning that finds Granduciel at his most Dylanesque, “Pain” begins with the instruction to “go to bed now” – alas, there’s more brooding to do. In the equally winsome “Clean Living”, he admits that “Sometimes I’ll lay in the dark/Just to see if I can feel a spark.”
At other times, he seems to have a new reason to be awake. As he puts it in “Up All Night”, it’s “some feeling I can’t break”, something that’s “glowing” and that he can’t understand. In “Thinking Of A Place” – the album’s 14-minute centrepiece, a haunting, gently shifting reverie of a love that got lost somewhere near the banks of the Missouri river – there’s more talk of light creeping in, of “movin’ with the moon” and morning arriving to help bust up the old ways of feeling and thinking. He doesn’t necessarily know what to call “all these changes I don’t understand”, as he puts it in “Nothing To Find”, one of the most immediately engaging new songs. But maybe a guy with his disposition is too wary to cop to feeling happier, which he has every right to these days given his band’s continuing rise in fortunes (including a new deal with Atlantic) and his own romance with actress Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones and Breaking Bad fame. Plus there’s all the sunshine he encountered after decamping to Los Angeles to record most of A Deeper Understanding, even if Granduciel recently admitted his reference points for quintessential LA records are Warren Zevon and Tonight’s The Night rather than anything that sounds like it has a great tan.
So even though much of the album may guide us through more long, dark nights of the soul, there’s a new brightness at the edges here, and more warmth, too. While the sound is as obsessively layered and textured as ever, it benefits from a beefier low end, The War On Drugs having shifted out of the trebly tendencies that were part and parcel with the shoegazer and psych inspirations more prevalent on Lost In The Dream and 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues.
New songs like “Holding On” – more proof of Granduciel’s genius at building a Springsteenian heartland rocker out of such unlikely components as a motorik groove and his arsenal of vintage synths – benefit from a greater emphasis on band performances, too. Hunkering down in a series of studios in LA and New York with Alabama Shakes engineer Shawn Everett, Granduciel modified his often solitary working methods to create more room for drummer Charlie Hall, bassist Dave Hartley and keyboardist Robbie Bennett, his most loyal collaborators since The War On Drugs evolved from a loose assemblage of Philly pals to a more professional operation. The two multi-instrumentalists who fill out the band’s regular live lineup, Jon Natchez and Anthony LaMarca, make similarly valuable appearances.
The result is some of the richest, most compelling and least lonely-sounding music of Granduciel’s career. And that’s true even of songs as beautifully forlorn as “Clean Living”, on which Granduciel weathers a troubled time by providing himself with a pep talk (“I know my way around it/I’ve been doing alright”) and a deftly arranged musical setting that foregrounds Bennett’s Rhodes, Natchez’ baritone sax and the singer’s own contributions on piano and harmonica. “Knocked Down” is another expression of vulnerability and feeling “beaten up and weak” that exudes strength and resilience.
Elsewhere, The War On Drugs shed the more lugubrious tendencies that sometimes dog them, reaching maximum cruising speed when the programmed beats kick in halfway through “Up All Night”, a swirl of fuzz and rhythm of a kind rarely heard since Andrew Weatherall remixed My Bloody Valentine. Granduciel sounds just as free of his demons when he croons a few “woo-hoos” over the cascading synths of “Nothing To Find”, which is to Springsteen’s “Glory Days” what Lost In The Dream’s “Burning” was to “Dancing In The Dark”. At times like these, the night that once seemed endless isn’t so long at all.
The October 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Jack White on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Van Morrison, The National, The Dream Syndicate, Steve Winwood, Tony Visconti, The The, The Doors and Sparks. We review LCD Soundsystem, The Style Council, Chris Hillman, Hiss Golden Messenger and Frank Zappa. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Lee Renaldo, Mogwai, Wand, Chris Hillman, The Dream Syndicate, Hiss Golden Messenger and more.