The album succeeds at marrying two eras which should probably never collide.
There are some bands that seem as though they call themselves bands more out of respect for the contributions of others than the reality of the songwriting. The War on Drugs is primarily the work of Adam Granduciel. Like Billy Corgan before him, he’s an artist who knows what he wants to articulate, and his songs are deep, layered and complicated with a small scale evolution. The reality of the War On Drugs’ lineup is that it is more of a project, but all of the members of the band are accomplished musicians individually. There’s an undeniably retro element to the War On Drugs’ last two albums — an unmistakable influence by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, perhaps even Nick Drake. Fans of those artists would find a home from the first note of this record.
What makes A Deeper Understanding a little different is that, despite the fact that the songwriting and vocal style is still very much a chilled out patio record, the production plays with faster tempos and sounds resembling electro-pop. The songs on A Deeper Understanding are not pop or rock songs and follow no single accessible formula of verses, hook and chorus. Although they meander and change, they are the direct result of meticulous planning and decision making, creating an album that needs to be experienced more as a whole than a series of potential hits.
The lead track “Up All Night” doesn’t even make the halfway mark before there is a bass synth echoing along in the background giving everything an almost New Order flavour. By the track’s end, it’s gone into a distorted guitar solo for a long time before simplifying once again into a minimalist electro-pop track with repeating piano notes and electronic backing vocals. “Pain” goes slower and deeper into a more acoustic and simple sound. But the use of acoustic guitar strings and layers of bright synth keys give the whole thing an optimistic feel. “Holding On” again launches into a format which feels far more accelerated than the first record ever ventured. It’s more about the background layers of beats stuffed between baseline and slow moving guitar work, creating a juxtaposition between that vintage sound brought on by Granduciel’s vocals and the fast, echoing beats.
Like it or not, you have to give the band a nod for succeeding at marrying two eras which should probably never collide. A Deeper Understanding sounds like a New Order record if a softer, breathier Tom Petty and Bob Dylan were the new lead singers. “Strangest Thing” draws everything to a slower and steadier ballad pacing. The production quality is stunning from beginning to end. And on this track, one of the most minimal on the record, the talent involved here becomes really apparent. In the middle of the song, keys rise up to meet the vague strumming of a guitar, the track eventually evolving into guitar solos awash in measured distortion and feedback. “You Don’t Have to Go” is slow enough to fade out the entire experience and make you feel you’ve got your due.
The beautiful opportunity this record creates is the mixing of fast and slow tempos. Even at their fastest and most up-beat, songs like “Nothing to Find” rock along at a significant pace with measurably speedy vocals, yet somehow the record still manages to sound reflective and important — a tool to aid in contemplation and reflection. It’s danceable yet does not inspire you to get up out of your seat. It says, sit down and relax.