Sunday, March 6, 2016

The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs’ fascinating third album, Lost in the Dream, dropped on March 18th. That means that I’m about three months late in writing this review, a delay that I could give any number of different excuses for. One would be that I wasn’t initially the person set to write this review, and another that I had never listened to a single song from The War on Drugs project prior to pushing play on “Under the Pressure” for the first time. However, neither of those lines of reasoning would properly explain why I’ve taken so much time to actually sit down and write this review. The actual reason is this: three months and two or three dozen plays into this album, I am only just now beginning to wrap my head around it and understand the beauty and majesty of the songs.

Supposedly penned by band mastermind Adam Granduciel in the wake of both a marathon tour and the end of a relationship, Lost in the Dream is an album mired in heartbreak, stress, anxiety, depression, and even paranoia. The guy who wrote this record was almost like an addict coming down from a high and trying to adjust to the real world again, except for the “high” was the touring life, and the “real world” was a place where his relationships fell apart and the ground cracked and collapsed beneath him. Because of these factors, Lost in the Dream is both emotionally candid and incredibly meticulous. It’s an album that catalogs what was clearly a very difficult and transitional time in Granduciel’s life, so there’s a lot of raw personal feeling, but it was also an album that Granduciel threw himself into completely, a record that was written and re-written, recorded and re-recorded, built up and torn down, tweaked, beaten, fixed, and forged into a musical endpoint that bore very little resemblance to where the journey had started. Make no mistake, while Lost in the Dream may sound spontaneous and immediate, very little of this record was left up to serendipity.

Legend has it that Springsteen almost drove himself and his band mad while trying to perfect Born to Run. If that’s the case, then Lost in the Dream is certainly Granduciel’s Born to Run, right down to the way the grandiose songs mask the insecurity coursing within them. Appropriately, there are a lot of similarities to Bruce at play here, from the rhythmic stomp of “Red Eyes” and “Burning” – both of which recall “Dancing in the Dark” – to the album’s somber, harmonica-laced dirge of a title track, which, at least for its first few moments, sounds like it could be a cover of Springsteen’s most hopeless tune, “Stolen Car.”

Springsteen isn’t the only influence on display on Lost in the Dream. Granduciel’s vocal timbre bears more in common with Tom Petty and Rod Stewart (or, at certain moments, Bob Dylan), while his musical styles flit from Fleetwood Mac (the rip-roaring guitar extravaganza that is “An Ocean Between the Waves”) to U2 (the skyscraping “Under the Pressure”), all the way to what are likely less-intentional callbacks to the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd (the guitar solo on “Suffering” is as wistful as the main riff to “Tuesday’s Gone”) or The Cure (the neon light flourishes of “Burning,” which sounds as destined to be played at theme parks in the summertime as “Just Like Heaven”). Country music even crosses the canvas on “Eyes to the Wind,” a ramblin’ nighttime highway anthem so lush that you can almost see the kaleidoscope colors of the evening sky opening up in its strains.

Other listeners, of course, will draw their own parallels, based on where their personal musical journeys have taken them over the years. Ultimately though, it’s not the allusions that matter on Lost in the Dream, but how Granduciel incorporates those styles and influences into a sound and a story that is thoroughly his own. These songs are throwbacks, but not in a way that makes them sound out of place on a 2014 release; they’re mournful, but not without foot-tapping rhythms and soaring guitars to keep hope on the horizon; and they’re long as fuck (the album’s shortest proper track is “Lost in the Dream,” which clocks in at 4:08), but also so loaded with expert musicianship, striking lyricism, and vibrant production that they never drag or overstay their welcome.

In other words, Lost in the Dream is more than its influences, more than its meticulous level of craft, more than its enviable quotient as a top-tier “guitar album,” and more than its critical acclaim. This record is special because the journey it takes us on, between the skittering, heartbroken anxiety of “Under the Pressure (“When it all breaks down and we’re runaways, standing in the wake of our pain/And we stare straight into nothing, but we’re covered all the same”) and the gorgeous, slow-burn resignation of “In Reverse” (“When I’m done with my time here/I’m going to keep staying strong”) is the portrait of an artist fighting to find and define himself after everything but the music falls apart. Naturally, we get a lot of Granduciel’s pain and suffering along the way (there’s even a track called “Suffering” on this record, for God's sake), but the fact that the songs end up sounding so thoroughly triumphant and massive is testament to the meaning of the record. Granduciel found refuge in writing and crafting these songs when his life seemed to be going off the rails, and now, everyone else gets to do the same thing. One man’s suffering becomes our communal celebration, so to speak. It's a fine role for one of the year's best albums to play.

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