The War on Drugs, a rootsy rock band led by frontman
began its recording career in 2008 with the ragged “Wagonwheel Blues” on the independent label Secretly Canadian. At the outset, the group’s most notable qualities were Mr. Granduciel’s voice, which had a buzzing rasp pitched halfway between
and the deceptively catchy songwriting, which had memorable hooks embedded in crude production. With each new release, the War on Drugs refined and sharpened its sound, transitioning from folksy and ramshackle to high-tech and precise. When the group moved to a major label before 2017’s “A Deeper Understanding,” there was the typical concern among fans that it might change its sound to fit with mainstream trends, but the opposite happened: More time and money to make records meant that Mr. Granduciel and his band sounded more like themselves. The record won Best Rock Album at the Grammys, and Mr. Granduciel, a studio perfectionist, has taken his time following it up. The War on Drugs return Friday with “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” (Atlantic), and it was worth the wait.
Mr. Granduciel’s music is deeply rooted in classic rock, but he combines his influences in surprising and very personal ways. He’s a great admirer of
but while many who have channeled the New Jersey icon—think
album with Bleachers from early this year—have looked to the youthful and hyper-romantic sound of his early material, Mr. Granduciel’s fixations come from a later period in the Boss’s development. He zeroes in on the sound of ’70s rock rockers—along with Mr. Springsteen, he draws from artists like
—as they crept toward middle age and grappled with keyboard-dominated synth-rock of the following decade, when guitar lines were jostling for space with sparkling keyboards and live percussion had to compete with drum machines.
The opening “Living Proof” finds the song’s narrator wandering his neighborhood and seeing it transform into something unrecognizable, which amplifies his feeling of dislocation. It’s built around a simple descending piano line with some powerful production flourishes—the couplet “Banging on a drum / You turned me loose” is accompanied by a far-off subsonic boom, like the rumble of a distant earthquake—and then late in the track the piece opens up and the singer takes stock of where he is: “I’m always changing / Love overflowing / But I’m rising / And I’m damaged.”
Lyrics have never been Mr. Granduciel’s strong suit. His words have never been embarrassing but they’ve sometimes been generic, and they draw heavily from rock mythology. The latter trend continues on the new album, but Mr. Granduciel writes with a new clarity and specificity. Certain words crop up repeatedly across the LP—“running,” “time,” “darkness,” “lost,” “father,” and above all “change”—hinting at the themes threaded through the record.
These are songs about feeling stuck and then breaking loose, about being ready to confront the fears that have always been with you, and learning to live with the hurt that doesn’t go away. The third track, “Change,” opens with a beautifully chiming guitar line and crisp, propulsive yet unshowy drumming from the band’s
As it gathers emotional force, we hear how far Mr. Granduciel has come as a singer over the past 13 years—his tone sounds less affected as his phrasing has become richer, even when he lands on the occasional clunker like “Maybe I was born too late / For this lonely freedom fight.”
Mr. Granduciel and co-producer
process his voice in novel ways when the song calls for it—at the opening of “I Don’t Wanna Wait” he sounds like he’s singing through six feet of water, and then the arrangement builds to a delicious pop-rock confection. Coming midway through the record, the title track is a masterpiece and is in the running for the best War of Drugs song so far. It opens with a cryptic Dylan allusion (“I was lying in my bed / A creature void of form,” the latter image borrowed from the elder songwriter’s “Shelter From the Storm”) and then follows with straightforward one (“Like when we went to see Bob Dylan / We danced to ‘Desolation Row’”) as Mr. Granduciel sifts through the past in search of truth. He’s joined on the chill-inducing chorus by
and Holly Laessig of the band Lucius, and their layered voices dissolve the loneliness and isolation and suggest warmth and community.
Two tracks late in the record, “Old Skin” and “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes,” meditate on fathers and fatherhood, ruminating about fate and aging and what to do with what our ancestors hand down. And then the album’s final number, “Occasional Rain,” is a happy ending that’s streaked with sadness. It’s a midtempo ballad about lost love, but where once in a War on Drugs song there was only depression and anguish, now there’s a hint of optimism. The clouds and gloom are still there, but only sometimes. The group was not meant to be a scruffy indie band after all—the bigger the canvas, the more realized the group’s aesthetic has become. Some might miss the energy and jagged edges of the War On Drugs’ early work, but “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” makes a strong case as the group’s best LP so far, and it might be the best rock album of 2021.
—Mr. Richardson is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRichardson.
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