You know, I had a whole piece prepared for a solo review of this album - and off of the first few listens, I was sure it’d be worth it. Sure, it might wind up short - at this point The War On Drugs have an established and legit fantastic formula and sound and it’s not like they’ve ever been the most lyrical band, so surely it’d be easy to put together, right?
Well, here’s the thing: there was a shift with this album, in that a lot of the haze and sheen that permeated their early work and started to clear a bit on A Deeper Understanding, the meandering shoegaze compositions that underscored the krautrock grooves, most of that has been sandblasted away for something cleaner, sharper, and much more immediate, where the synths have even more sparkle and the bite of the electric guitars can almost feel oppressively loud in moments. Now on the one hand this doesn’t have to be a bad thing - the band’s biggest asset has been their gift for melody, so if they’re going to supercharge that this could easily be a jump-on point, and hell, given how everyone worships 80s nostalgia, going for more heavier, booming percussion or drum machines that sound more retro feels like an ideal way to underline that yearning Americana - and more often than not the compositions are anthemic enough to pull it off!
But this might be the first time where the cracks in The War On Drugs’ formula are starting to slip through no matter how great the tunes are - it’s an album that was reportedly composed more piecemeal across multiple studios and you can tell, in how the album’s vibe feels more fractured, with more moments that don’t quite blend as well as they could, especially in shoving the vocals closer to the front and leaning on analog synths that don’t always flatter the mix the way they could. But I’m also not sure immediacy is a great fit for The War On Drugs - Adam Granduciel is giving more of an emphatic performance, but he’s always been a frontman comfortable within the mist, whereas a little more exposure highlights his husky limitations as a singer and draws more attention to the writing. And while I said it before that The War On Drugs have never been lyrical, it matters less when you just let the fragmented words ride like echoes on the wind - here you become a lot more aware of the self-flagellating depression, the emotions never quite grasped, the oceans of time and memory and love that roil around us, and just how much of this feels like a pensive, Springsteen-worshipping dad rock cliche. And honestly, I hate having to go to that place to talk about this band - it might be true, but it’s lazy criticism and the formula is so powerful and executed so well that I often reply with ‘who cares’… but when you draw more attention to it all, the seams become more visible.
Make no mistake, this is still a great album, I’m giving it a solid 8/10… but it’s a step back from their best, and I’m not sure it helps that I can see a bit more behind the curtain.