Music

The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding – a classic rock comfort blanket?

The War on Drugs' new album A Deeper Understanding made Malcolm Jack think about throwing Ed Sheeran's guitar in a bush. Let him explain...

There was an interesting study published a few years back by a Spotify analyst which found that 33 is the average age at which people – in particular men – give up listening to new artists and succumb to so-called “taste freeze”. “Music was better back then,” these unmoving advocates of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or any other such safely established signifiers of good taste are known to exclaim with a mixture of earnest zeal and barely disguised confusion, while gesturing angrily at the telly and harbouring an irrational desire to steal Ed Sheeran’s annoyingly small guitar and throw it in a bush. You know the type. Maybe you are the type.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xam6M36KzA

I wonder sometimes whether The War on Drugs are a band whose considerable success in recent years is somehow partly rooted in this pattern of mid-30s musical ennui. The Philadelphians’ fourth album A Deeper Understanding – the much-anticipated follow-up to 2014’s Lost in the Dream, which dominated critics’ end-of-year lists like few other guitar albums have done this century and earned them a step up to one of the most cherished of major labels Atlantic Records – feels like a frayed-at-the-edges US classic rock comfort blanket for listeners who almost seem to wish that, with the odd reassuring exception, some kind of embargo was placed on the making of new music before they were even born.

In an almost sweet invocation of Springsteen and his E Street Band, Granduciel’s live band features approximately 157 more lads than it probably strictly needs to

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Adam Granduciel – a long-haired chap given to playing vastly elongated cosmic guitar solos while silhouetted against a dazzling light display, and thus presumably not a man given to an overabundance of self-awareness – continues to sing like he has literally swallowed 1970s-era Bob Dylan whole. The tumbling, twinkling melodic runs that decorate Holding On couldn’t be more Springsteen-ian if they sported an ill-advised soul patch. In another, almost sweet invocation of Springsteen and his E Street Band, Granduciel’s live band features approximately 157 more lads than it probably strictly needs to.

All of which might seem to imply that I hate The War on Drugs, which would be entirely incorrect. I don’t think I’ve listened to many albums more in recent years than Lost in the Dream – it really is a fantastic record, majestic, warm and endlessly tuneful. A Deeper Understanding isn’t as immediately appealing, but I’ve had it stuck on repeat every bit as much so far. The 11 minutes and 11 seconds long Thinking of a Place is one of the finest tracks of 2017 – a patiently hypnotic and bucolic mid-tempo psychedelia-tinged cruise across the vast plains of heartland American rock. If there’s something that Granduciel does cleverly, it’s the way he bathes his nostalgic reference points in a kaleidoscopically trippy haze of echo and phase effects, rendering them like a fever dream reimagining of your parents’ record collection.

But my enjoyment of The War on Drugs does make me ask a few questions of myself, and my potentially shifting listening habits. Am I also now slowly slipping into the chasm of mid-30s musical ennui and succumbing to “taste freeze”? Will I too soon start harbouring an irrational desire to steal Ed Sheeran’s annoyingly small guitar and throw it in a bush? Come to think of it I’ve wanted to do that for years now. You’re never too young to want to throw Ed Sheeran’s guitar in a bush, kids.

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