The War on Drugs weren’t just a buzz artist in 2014: they were arguably the artist of the year. In a year that lacked an obvious consensus critical favorite—thanks in part to the fact that most of the “big artists” stayed quiet—an unassuming rock band from Philadelphia snagged a whole boatload of accolades. Sure, not every publication chose Lost in the Dream, the band’s grandiose third LP, for its top honors, but no album appeared on more lists or managed a higher average rank.
That breakout year could have fundamentally changed things for Adam Granduciel, the frontman and mastermind of The War on Drugs. The band made the jump from Secretly Canadian, the indie label that had put out their first three records, to the major leagues, signing with Atlantic. But rather than interfere or try to push Granduciel toward something more marketable or palatable to radio audiences, Atlantic seemingly just let the man do his thing. The result, a new album called A Deeper Understanding, somehow manages to improve upon its predecessor in every way without abandoning the signature sound it established.
Part of what made Lost in the Dream so great was that it sounded like a band getting in a room together and trying to make the biggest sound possible together. In reality, that sound was an illusion. Granduciel would later go on record proclaiming Dream a solo record, one where he played many of the instruments and almost no two parts of any song were recorded in tandem. Rather than go the “jam in a room together until you find the groove” route, Granduciel prefers to tinker in the studio—demoing, letting new songs come together naturally, and then obsessively layering the different components so that everything ends up sounding perfect.
The approach paid off in 2014 and it pays off now. A Deeper Understanding is one of the best-sounding albums of the year so far, a gorgeous swell of guitar heroics, wavering synths, and warm 80s-style keys that never lets up. If there’s a difference between the sound here and what we heard on Lost in the Dream, it’s that everything sounds bigger and more expansive this time around. The guitar solos in “Pain”; the warm Springsteen-style piano arpeggios and saxophone bursts of “In Chains”; the cartwheeling carnival-ride of synths and guitars that kickstarts “Nothing to Find.” So many moments of this record sound like they belong in a stadium—or at very least as the yearning soundtrack to a John Hughes-inspired teen movie. The songs are larger than life in the best way possible.
What’s fascinating about A Deeper Understanding is that Granduciel manages to cultivate a sound that mimics some of the biggest rock stars of yore without ever relying on big anthemic choruses or memorable refrains. There are no “hooks” on this record. The closest we get is probably on “Holding On,” a beautiful, aching song about how friendships and relationships change and disintegrate over time. (“Did I let it go too fast? Was I holding on too long?”) Most of the time, though, the choruses, verses, and bridges swirl and blend together. The instrumentation is the star of the show, but that also sort of melds into one long trance of sound.
“It all blends together” is normally a criticism when applied to music, used to decry sound-alike songs and records that never take enough chances. With A Deeper Understanding, though, it somehow manages to be the album’s biggest strength. Songs bend and fold in on themselves, like mazes that mysteriously shift, contract, and elongate every time you traverse them. The album’s lead single, the splendidly meandering “Thinking of a Place,” clocks in at an expansive runtime of 11 minutes and 14 seconds. The average song length across the album’s 10 tracks is more than six and a half minutes. In lesser hands, you’d feel the bloat of those songs—at least on repeat listens.
But Granduciel and his team of mad rock ‘n’ roll scientists are so adept at building serene and thrilling soundscapes that to listen to A Deeper Understanding is to enter into a place where the laws of time don’t work quite like they do everywhere else. Somehow, these songs both fly by and feel like they will go on forever. “Thinking of a Place” might last for five minutes or it might last for 50, for how thoroughly it wraps you in its warm, contemplative embrace. It’s that balance between time and timelessness that makes A Deeper Understanding arguably the greatest record of 2017: it’s as close to real magic as art gets.