The Philadelphia band's fifth studio album is an immediate record that maintains their classic 80s inspired soft rock sound to great effect.
Blending the 80s pop and soft rock influences of Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams, it’s always been a mystery how The War on Drugs have continued to be lauded as hip and current over the past few years. After all, as the music industry progresses, we’re in an age where several of the above artists sound dated and anything but cool (sorry Dire Straits fans...). And yet, there is something about the Philadelphia band that resonates even if a lot of their work can stray into dad rock territory.
With that in mind, it’s certainly to Adam Granduciel and co’s credit that 2017’s A Deeper Understanding won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, had them playing stadium tours, whilst still maintaining their credibility amongst the music hipster community (Pitchfork is amongst their biggest supporters). Then again, their popularity isn't that surprising considering they possess a certain winning musical formula that lures people in once exposed.
They produce heartfelt music so easy to get lost in, which is why it sounds especially good on long journeys and in moments of life reflection. You can just stare out at the passing countryside (with one eye on the road, of course) and pretend you’re deep in thought in a movie montage sequence.
The War on Drugs began as a collaboration between Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel in 2005, adding to and changing their line up in the years since (Kurt Vile would depart in 2008). Putting them in a bracket is a tough ask though. Lets try anyway. They perform a brand of rock with pulls together heartland rock, classic rock, synth-pop and indie rock. A sprinkling of 80s soft rock influences, beautiful melodies, a strong sense of melancholy and longing... it comes together to create an instantly recognisable, unique sound.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, The War on Drugs have refined their winning recipe on their latest offering, I Don’t Live Here Anymore. It’s a style that, over 2014’s Lost in the Dream and their 2017 fourth album, shot them up to a high level of critical acclaim and prominent Billboard 200 chart positions. I mean, why change up when your latest work was so well received.
The songs on their new album are stacked with delicacy, pop hooks, and intricate layers of pianos, synths and guitars. Its evidence that the three year production time over seven studios has paid off. The songs are sprawling to a certain degree and yet still sound so focused with each listen revealing new moments of genius that may have gone unrecognised on first listen. The music is both instant and a collection of "growers", proof of an artist at the top of their game. It also flows wonderfully.
Had ‘Living Proof’ not been the first preview single, it would indeed have been an unconventional opener. It's a sad and reflective song that admittedly isn't the most immediate, but eventually draws you in to admire its beauty. ‘Harmonia’s Dream’ allows us to wipe away the tears from before with a familiar, pounding drum beat, pulsating synth lines and a hopeful guitar sound to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Title track ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’ has an instant and nostalgic feel that can’t help but take your breath away on first listen. Sitting six tracks in, it feels like the album’s centre point in more ways than one. That heartfelt, 80s groove will touch your soul and have you reaching for that repeat button so you can savor that feeling of desire and regret all over again.
A memorable highlight is his yearning for an ex-partner through memories of a Bob Dylan concert (“Like when we went to see Bob Dylan / We danced to "Desolation Row"). The fact that the Highway 61 Revisited closer isn’t particularly danceable matters very little, it’s a cool line. This song is so good it almost threatened to overshadow the rest of the album for me, such was the desire to get to it on the first few listens.
‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’ is the most experimental song on offer – the opening will have you thinking Phil Collins ‘In the Air Tonight’ before moving into a longing chorus and addictive hook (“I don't wanna wait / Yeah, but I'm running to you / I'm starving”). On ‘Victim’, Granduciel berates his own lustful desires (“I surrender, baby, help me understand / I've given everything when I had to give / Maybe I'm a victim of my own desire”). It’s a deliciously lush track that brings in harmonicas, synths and a refrain of “Who are you” for an epic finish.
'Wasted' picks the pace up three-quarters into the album, held together by the "ferocious" drumming of Pat Berkery whose work saved the song from abandonment. 'Rings Around My Fathers Eyes' is a stunning penultimate track inspired by Adam becoming a father and a protector. It has emerged as a favourite amongst the fanbase and it's easy to see why. A beautiful effort even if we're left wondering exactly what he is singing about.
"As a songwriter I just love it because it’s really concise. Lyrically, I was able to wrap up some of the scenes that I wanted to try and talk about, knowing where it was going to go on the record. I just think it’s one of those songs that’s a perfect closer. It’s the last song in our fifth album. It’s like, if this was the last album we ever made and that was the last song, I’d be like, ‘That’s a good way to go out."
We couldn't agree more. A beautiful way to depart what is one of 2021's best albums.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore is lustfulness, reflection, desire, sadness and hopefulness all rolled into one. When you have a winning formula, why mix it up when the music is THIS good. Adam Granduciel and The War on Drugs haven’t necessarily improved upon the outstanding A Better Understanding, but rather continued where they left off and fed a starved fanbase with a consistently brilliant album.
Honestly, I still haven't decided which of their records I prefer yet. I guess time will tell on that front. The one slight criticism is indeed the vagueness in lyricism, leaving us only with a general sense of what is being sung about. It's actually why a line about dancing at a Bob Dylan concert is so memorable (in 'I Don't Live Here Anymore'), a specific memory that goes against the grain. The songs are produced so well and have you feeling their vibe so well that this is only a minor point of negativity on an otherwise fantastic album.
Who really cares if it's "cool" or "hip". You'll depart the record with a warm feeling and a sense that everything is going to be alright. Hopefully we're not left to wait another four years for the next effort.