The War On Drugs Create a Relaxing, Emotional, Piece of Synth Pop
The Philadelphia rock group’s latest album, A Deeper Understanding, has finally arrived and we finally get to see the complete work after so many singles released. 2014’s Lost in the Dream was hyped up to an extreme but didn’t live up to my expectations. Besides “Red Eyes” and “Under the Pressure” I thought the instrumentation caused the songs to sound bland and very one note. The mood never changed throughout the album and led to a pretty hard lull after the first two songs. The first two singles off of A Deeper Understanding were comparable to these songs in instrumentation but were much grander in scale. “Thinking of a Place” is one of my favorite songs to come out this year as the sweeping lavish instrumentation create such a vivid mood it’s incredible. You must listen to this song, it is a journey on its own. I wasn’t sure if the band was going to include this single on the album because it is such a work on its own but it really fits well in the context of the entire album. “Holding On” is one of the band's most diverse sounding songs. The synthesizer that creates the beat and what sounds like triangles sprinkled in creating such a different mood than anything on Lost in the Dream. I was still skeptical going into this album as the rest of the songs could turn out to not be as lavish.
I was pleasantly surprised as the album has a great flow with a wide variety of instrumentation. Synthesizers and the piano create the base of the album and then each song builds from there. The album opener, “Up All Night”, is a great example of this. The piano and synthesizer do most of the work creating a groovy, up tempo beat, and then throughout the song drums and other instruments make appearances to spice things up. The mood created seems to be built around the lyrics about the paranoia of insomnia. The instrumental break in the middle of the song creates a sense of the main character not being able to sleep and staring blankly. This flows into the more mellow “Pain” which has some of the most harrowing lyrics in the entire album.
The reason that pain flows so well is that it doesn’t transition directly into a soft piano ballad. There is still some bite to this song with the drums but overall the tone is much mellower. After the more uptempo “Holding On”, “Strangest Thing” really slows down. With much more emphasis on the lyrics, this song paints a vivid picture of struggles in a relationship. One of the larger transitions that take place on the record is halfway through this song when the instrumentation vamps up with a beautiful guitar chord and backing strings. These first four tracks show growth in the band from their last album. The flow is impeccable as the highs and lows run in beautiful harmony. Although this is a little more upbeat than their previous work it does not sacrifice the strikingly sad moods they excel at.
“Knocked Down”, like “Stranger Thing” opens in almost a whisper but introduces more instrumentation quicker. This instrumentation is a little more minimal than the first four tracks and again extends the flow to another level. Unlike their previous album, you don’t get worn out listening to such long and similar songs. “Nothing To Find” revs up right from the start and fills your ears with an infectious speedy drumbeat. The lyrics are pretty par for the course but the harmonica and vocal performance give a vibe like Bob Dylan decided to go indie.
The band kinda loses steam after the immaculate “Thinking of a Place.” The slow burning “In Chains” doesn’t have as great a mix of instrumentation as the drums and synth drown out anything else. The vocal performance is also a little lackluster. “Clean Living” suffers many of the same flaws. The album's closer, “You Don’t Have to Go,” tries to leave the audience in tears as the very colorful somber lyrics shine through. The instrumentation doesn’t do it for me as well on this track until the building ending but the Dylanesque vocals and lyrics make up for it to some extent. My sweeping issues for this album are just a symptom of much of The War on Drug’s music. They tend to write on the sadder side and this can get tiring. I’d rather not be depressed 24/7, but the really well-crafted instrumentation alleviates some of the pain that this single songwriting dimension brings. The War on Drugs isn’t alone in this problem a lot of pop singers fall prey to a songwriting box and can never get out.
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