As with Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, Eels’ E, The Magnetic Fields‘ Stephin Merritt, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek, many of the most iconic bands in indie folk and rock music have been masterminded by one chief singer-songwriter who has been so clearly at the forefront of the act’s work that many would simply consider the group to merely be a recording moniker for their frontman. Whilst there are cases, such as with Kozelek and his current primary professional alias of Sun Kil Moon, wherein a group’s principle member will eventually assume complete artistic control of the band and its name, many of these acts simply continue to exist as full bands, but with their salient songwriter routinely credited as the lifeblood without which the group could not function. Depending on who you ask, Adam Granduciel of The War On Drugs fame is sometimes seen as one such singer who is so integral to his band’s artistry that the title of ‘The War On Drugs’ may as well be Granduciel’s stage name, but in this specific case, the lines are a lot more blurred. With numerous notable musicians having passed through The War On Drugs’ doors — the most obvious example being beloved indie folkster Kurt Vile — it could be easy to view the group as a sort of indie troupe, especially given that they have occasionally acted as a hub for harbouring collaborations within the indie folk and rock scenes, with both Granduciel and David Hartley having contributed to Sharon Van Etten’s crowning critical achievement, Are We There, whilst the band’s frontman is currently manning the production desk in the recording process of the upcoming album from lo-fi psych-pop group Sore Eros. Then again, in the case of The War On Drugs’ previous full-length project, Lost In The Dream, the fact that the album’s artwork depicts Granduciel alone, standing at a window of his house, seems to reflect a more solo-orientated format to the recording process, with the singer later categorising Lost In The Dream as a “solo record”, whilst also purporting all of The War On Drugs’ past output to be solo material. Although there were certain reasons to be sceptical of this idea at the time, the latest album to be released under The War On Drugs’ name, A Deeper Understanding, pushes the notion that the group is merely an Adam Granduciel solo project even further, beyond simply depicting only the frontman on the record’s cover once again. In fact, the album artwork for A Deeper Understanding seems to mirror its recording process and set-up even more than Lost In The Dream, with the image of Granduciel sitting alone at a piano in a dimly-lit studio reflecting the overall tone of the record, which can feel like the product of a lonely, contemplative musician in the midst of a self-imposed exile from quotidian life, in a very similar fashion to Conor Oberst’s release from last year, Ruminations. Coming to think of it, there are likely more parallels to be drawn between the recent material from The War On Drugs and Conor Oberst than meets the eye, with A Deeper Understanding, like Oberst’s latest record, Salutations, being overrun by an aesthetic evocative of heartland rock and folk music, with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty existing as pronounced artistic touchstones for both of these releases. However, whilst I pointed out in my review of Salutations that the blatant Bob and Bruce worship did not overshadow Oberst’s own artistic capacities, largely due to his sharp lyricism and the singular frailty to his pained singing, I would be hard-pressed to say that A Deeper Understanding is marked with a similarly apparent hallmark of Granduciel’s own, with the record struggling to come across as anything more than the sum of its parts. Undoubtedly, the singer-songwriter exhibits some endearing performances, but with the album’s 10 tracks stretching across over an hour’s worth of material, many of the longer cuts in the tracklisting struggle to justify their lengths on a structural level, whilst the profundity of Granduciel’s yearning, existentialist poetry wains substantially. Ultimately, A Deeper Understanding is unquestionably appealing in its muted, melancholic meditations, but it lacks the depth to justify the strained lengths it goes to in order to convey its soul-searching sentiments.
Although often disguised by the grand, hazy timbre of a great deal of the songs in the tracklisting, the Achilles’ heel of A Deeper Understanding relates to a lack of depth all around, both in terms of the core of these compositions and the meaning of Granduciel’s wistful lyricism when stripped of its poetic pleasantries. In terms of the overall sound of the album, however, The War On Drugs piece together a selection of compositions that, at the very least, are sweet on the ears, with the bright, triumphant piano licks, glossy, coruscating synthesizers, sharp, glistening guitar tones and punchy grooves all being wrapped up in some neo-psychedelic ambience that invites the listener into the band’s world of ethereal euphony. As such, the album’s best moments tend to be those that make up for songwriting deficiencies with ravishing instrumentation and compelling performances, which is also wherein the group reaps a substantial emotional benefit from placing Granduciel’s vocals closer to the front of the mix, as to capture and convey the semblance of a lowly balladeer that is depicted on the record’s artwork. Holding On, for instance, marries Bruce Springsteen’s heartland Americana music with 80s synth-pop, with a constant, driving drum and bass groove holding down the fort as glimmering guitar cleans and plucky piano stabs decorate the song with dainty riffs, whilst layers of warm and fuzzy synth arpeggios entwine off in the distance. With the piece’s accents being reinforced by some angelic, single-note glockenspiel work, and with Granduciel’s raspy vocal melodies ascending to a soul-stirring high point during the chorus, Holding On is perhaps the best example from A Deeper Understanding of a song that can convey an urgent sense of emotion, even in spite of the fact that peeling away its indulgent instrumentation will reveal a noticeably underdeveloped structure contained within its six-minute duration. Likewise, the closing track, You Don’t Have To Go, despite being a brazen case of hero-worship towards Bob Dylan circa the mid-1970s, witnesses smooth piano runs fluently meander between subtle rhythmic punctuations that guide the piece naturally towards the emotional apex placed at the end of the cut, as textures of echoed cascades of acoustic and electric guitars, cycles of fiery synthesizers and uplifting ambience support one of Granduciel’s most emotionally commanding vocal passages across the whole album. Although few moments in the tracklisting strike the same heavenly highs as the admittedly well-placed closing cut, a song such as Pain at least translates some dominant melodic tones in its layers of winding acoustic and electric guitar licks.
Looking at A Deeper Understanding with a more comprehensive lens, however, reveals that, even in spite of some moments of emotional potency courtesy of some vivid and decadent instrumental arrangements, there is little to this album in terms of overall substance, as concerns the songwriting, Granduciel’s lyrics and the general creativity at play in The War On Drugs’ part-Americana, part-krautrock sound. As previously stated, even the more impressive instrumental feats across the album are definitely lacking from a structural perspective, but this problem becomes even more prominent on the more muted and stripped-back ballads, wherein there doesn’t exist the same strong sonic cushioning to tide over the listener during some of the prolonged passages of Granduciel’s vapid ponderings. The shame of this is that, with the frontman so plainly putting the spotlight on himself as to impart an air of intimacy and fragility, many of these tracks could have been made to benefit this newfound formula if they were written with a defined sense of purpose and direction, with the end product, instead, often being too weak on a structural basis to allow Granduciel’s meditations to come across as anything other than vague, wordy wallpaper. Case in point, with songs such as Strangest Thing and Clean Living lumbering through rather rudimentary folk rock trappings, the more pastel and unobtrusive tone that such songs take struggles to pay off when neither the instrumentation nor Granduciel’s lyricism find any eventual release or acme across the six-and-a-half minutes that they are each given to truly flourish into something captivating. Similarly, with Knocked Down plodding somewhat inelegantly through a structure that fails to ever pick up one of The War On Drugs’ signature grooves, whilst the guitar incidentals that appear towards the beginning of the track, besides being played through a really clunky, metallic tone that clashes horribly with the general mood of the song, are played incredibly clumsily, as if the band wasn’t sure how to integrate a gritty, heavily-reverbed solo into such a slow-paced dirge. The record’s centrepiece, Thinking Of A Place, also features a jarringly loud guitar solo that simply comes across as stilted, awkward and generally unpleasant in the midst of this understated, dulcet ballad, whilst the cut’s length, which stretches past the 11-minute mark, is far from justified when considering how minimal and uneventful the compositional progression of the song is. It’s instances such as these wherein it almost seems as if The War On Drugs wanted to capture more of a general mood on A Deeper Understanding, to the point of leaving the songwriting substance out in the cold. Although I would like to think that such a cynical outlook on the album is unfair, the fact that this proposal is supported by just how imprecise and almost meaningless Granduciel’s poetry is throughout the tracklisting doesn’t bode well for the other side of the argument. For the most part, the frontman seems to loosely thread together thin, threadbare imagery that evokes typical natural and rootsy imagery without actually saying anything of substance, to the point that it seems as if Granduciel’s lyrics are simply intended to further the folksy, Americana aesthetic of the album without actually providing any poetic body beneath the surface. This possibility seems more and more likely when considering the lyrics to a song such as Knocked Down, which, over the course of its four-minute duration, only employs a rhyme scheme for two whole rhyming couplets, whilst touching upon vague, folksy buzzwords relating to rain, stars, the night sky and being a child throughout the rest of the track. Given just how undeniably awkward Granduciel’s singing sounds without a consistent rhyme scheme, one could potentially make the argument that the singer is being deliberately obtuse. However, if that is the case, then it would make far more sense to opt for some striking imagery and word choices, as opposed to alluding to many of the most common clichés of indie folk music. Again, given that Knocked Down is undoubtedly the most intimate song on the album from a songwriting and sonic perspective, its coarse-grained constitution becomes all the more apparent, as does the extent to which it alludes to much greater problems with the vague and vapid nature of the rest of A Deeper Understanding.
It’s unequivocally easy to be taken in by the overall euphony of A Deeper Understanding and, upon my first spin of the record, although I recognised the album’s clear lack of structural substance, I was nonetheless content with simply having the soothing soundscapes wash over me. However, the more time I spent with A Deeper Understanding, the more frustrated I became with its obvious lack of purpose or meaning, just as the extent to which The War On Drugs’ obvious reverence for certain folksters and heartland rockers became more and more tiring. One artist taking cues from another is nothing new, of course, but when a band pull so heavily from the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, they need to go to great lengths to give the listener a gripping reason to listen to their music as opposed to Blood on the Tracks or The River. Unfortunately, I would be hard-pressed to say that A Deeper Understanding accomplishes this, and this is where the album’s vapidity really trips it up. There is certainly a pleasing quality to the overall timbre of some of the more lavishly arranged songs, but there is far too little depth to tide the listener over for an hour’s worth of material. All in all, this sums up both the core appeal and the salient shortcoming of A Deeper Understanding, that being that it’s an album that values aesthetic over artistic weight to the bitter end, which can be satisfying at times, but for the most part, The War On Drugs, in trying to put Granduciel in the spotlight, have stripped away more than the frontman alone can compensate for, with all that remains being a hollow shell of folksy bromides.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10