The War On Drugs are back with A Deeper Understanding, a title even more pretentious than Lost In The Dream, and are still sounding very much like The War On Drugs. They are sort of like a cup of tea or a digestive biscuit - reassuringly familiar. Some might say that this reveals a lack of creativity, however, I would argue that The War On Drugs have reached the sweet spot with their sound.
Lyrically, A Deeper Understanding is heavily indebted to Bob Dylan. This excludes his gritty vocals, politics and, ironically given the band’s name, his drug references, but focuses on his penchant for melancholic love songs. This theme defines this album lyrically, with every song exploring Adam Granduciel’s downtrodden love life. This is something that anyone who has listened to the lyrics of Lost In The Dream will be familiar with. Particularly characteristic lyrics include “I’m in love / I’m in pain” and “I want to love you but I get knocked down”. The melancholic, and at times downright depressing, character of A Deeper Understanding is furthered by its juxtaposition of darkness and light and a theme of increasingly desperate attempts to cling to the past whilst a relationship collapses around you. This second theme is very reminiscent of Springsteen’s Downbound Train. The album culminates with You Don’t Have To Go, which is more of a desperate plea that inevitably fails rather than the reconciliation of a relationship that it sounds like it could be.
This unwavering melancholy would be overwhelming if it were not perfectly possible to leave A Deeper Understanding’s lyrical depths unexplored and stay in the metaphorical shallows of its polished sounds. In this regard little has changed from Lost In The Dream: the sweeping melodic guitar, haunting background synth, and familiar simple drum rhythms remain. These have changed enough, however, to avoid becoming a self-parody. The guitar solos make use of more effects to differentiate between tracks, and the drums change rhythm instead of appearing to just change tempo between songs. The War On Drugs are therefore still doing little to counter criticism of being just another American soft rock band. This means that it sounds similar to artist such as Dylan and Springsteen. The song Strangest Thing is particularly reminiscent of the Dire Straits’ track, Brothers In Arms. If you like this type of music, then A Deeper Understanding needs to be listened to.
So far in this review I have spent a fair amount of time saying that the War On Drugs have always sounded the same. This is true when compared to music from Lost In The Dream. However, the War On Drugs have come a long way from Barrel Of Batteries and Wagonwheel Blues. These albums had a country vibe to them with twelve string guitars and harmonics being used in a way that could often become grating. Future Weather and Slave Ambient are also noticeably different from the last two albums. In this period The War On Drugs all but abandoned their guitars and morphed into a band that made the type of ambient music that could be listened to late at night or in a darkened room. It is therefore disingenuous to say that The War on Drugs have always sounded the same.
I am not sure I have gained a deeper understanding of anything from this album. However, what I do know is that The War On Drugs have only changed enough sonically and lyrically to just about differentiate from Lost In The Dream and that Granduciel has a really unsuccessful love life. A Deeper Understanding is a must listen for anyone who has enjoyed The War on Drugs’ previous work.