The magic is still there, but a bit diminished.Atlantic Records, 2017
7.1 / 10
Adam Granduciel, singer/visionary of the War On Drugs, is notoriously fickle with his music-making process. It’s evident in the sound of his work, which you’d be hard-pressed to describe as “spontaneous” or “easy”. It’s a work ethic that gets results, as it did for Granduciel on 2014’s Lost In the Dream. But with A Deeper Understanding, I can’t help but feel like his perfectionism gets in the way. These songs lack the thrilling twists of previous albums. Granduciel’s singing feels even more resigned and world-weary than usual.
On opener “Up All Night”, Granduciel’s vocals enter rather gratingly. No matter how many listens I give the track, something feels off about the timbre of his whispery breathing. As an opener, it puts a dent in an otherwise strong opening run of tracks. Both “Pain” and “Holding On” have some of the soundest hooks on the record. They give the album some momentum, but it crests with the seventh track. No doubt “Thinking of a Place” is one of the best to come from Granduciel. Coming to life slowly, the song feels like a long-distance flight — serenely observing the clouds as it begins; followed by the turbulence-induced nausea of the guitar solo.
Speaking of guitar solos, it’s been the go-to move for the War on Drugs to evoke hugeness. Whenever a track feels stale, there’s a shimmering guitar lead waiting to burst it open. This happens on “Strangest Thing”, and a few other tracks. A searing lead gets your heart-rate up, but the cracks are beginning to show with these songwriting tricks. “Strangest Thing” bums along to the same cadence of “Suffering” off of Lost In the Dream but doesn’t conjure the vital-ness of that tune. Which really is what A Deeper Understanding feels like, to me. A shadow compared to its predecessor. It tries to bring out the same emotions, the same expanse, but doesn’t quite get there. Whereas he was lost in nocturnal make-believe before, perhaps with this new album, the focus has shifted to his head. Here’s to writing a little more from the gut next time.