2014 in Music: The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream

1. Under the Pressure 2. Red Eyes 3. Suffering 4. An Ocean in Between the Waves 5. Disappearing 6. Eyes to the Wind 7. The Haunting Idle 8. Burning 9. Lost in the Dream 10. In Reverse

Revivalism is hard. When the goal of your band is to bring back sounds of old, it’s hard to simultaneously distance yourself from these influences, to justify why a listener should listen to the revival and not the classics of the original genre. The War on Drugs have had to fight that throughout their career, to grow beyond just an expy of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. While these artists’ influence is still all over The War on Drugs’ music, the band this time around justify those comparisons by writing some really good songs. I do think The War on Drugs still lean heavily on their influences, but I can ignore that when the band writes songs as satisfying as “Red Eyes” or “Eyes to the Wind.” Lost in the Dream isn’t a groundbreaking record by any means, but it’s full of pleasant songs and interesting moments, and that’s enough for me.

The War on Drugs take a traditional approach to keyboard-based soft rock, emphasizing the warm and lush sounds the genre is known for. The usual suspects are all here — Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer organs, heavy use of flanger on guitars. Songs like “Suffering” play these instruments straight, creating a more subdued, comforting vibe. The songs I think are interesting, though, find ways to spice this up and add a sense of progression or dynamics in. “Red Eyes” does this very well in its beginning phase. This phase of the song builds some good tension, most obviously by holding back a bit of volume, but also in the rhythm section. Charlie Hall, the drummer, restrains from any sort of cymbal hit, not even hi-hat, the band using acoustic guitar to function in the timekeeping role the hi-hat usually plays. The lack of cymbals creates a sense of restraint, which lets the moment where the song breaks open feel even more monumental. Whereas crash hits usually go unnoticed, without any other cymbal noise the quick fill and crash hit serve as a huge signal of transition and make the introduction of our guitar lead even more significant feeling. The transition into the big chorus part doesn’t actually offer any new sounds — the two keys and the guitar all floated in and out of the first verse — but offers the first moment where all of the sounds are together and playing fully formed parts, making this bit feel bigger than it actually is. Moments like these, where The War on Drugs do daring things with their sound, is what makes this album for me. The instrumentals are well-conceived and executed, and that’s what’s enjoyable about this record to me.

Adam Granduciel treats his vocals with lots of reverb and especially delay (quick crash course: reverb is essentially an echo-like sound, whereas delay spits out a replica of the original a beat or two later, usually a fair bit quieter than the original. In real time they sound similar, and I’d commonly use both at the same time when I was doing live sound). This has the positive effect of making Granduciel sound massive when the effects are on. He uses a delay to build intensity throughout all of “Burning,” increasing how loud it is as the song builds to make the vocals step more. Combined with the whispery vocals of “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” the delay stretches out the vocals, making the song feel more introspective. The downside to using vocal effects is that it can make it hard to make out individual words, and that’s definitely at play on Lost in the Dream. On a casual listening, lines themselves don’t stand out to me. Instead, all I hear is the melody and intonations of Granduciel’s singing. I like Granduciel’s singing, but the effort to soften the vocals and have them linger means that the lyrics themselves don’t ask for my attention. I can and have listened to this album with the lyrics in front of me, but because they’re hard to make out, they don’t really contribute too much to my enjoyment of this album.

Despite these complaints, The War on Drugs have crafted some interesting, intricate songs on here, songs that contribute a lot of interesting musical ideas without losing the nostalgic vibe their revivalism creates. The War on Drugs have always felt like a band with a lot of potential, and here that potential starts to come true. That said, I do wish Granduciel would stop leaning so heavily on vocal effects, using them as a tool to be busted out occasionally rather than a constant from song to song. “Eyes to the Wind” stand up without the effects, and I feel like it’s the most meaningful song The War on Drugs offer up on this album. As The War on Drugs grow, I’d like to see them be a bit more daring in the future. They have really strong songwriting chops, but I would enjoy hearing more diverse songs from them. I don’t think The War on Drugs have shown us all they have to offer, and this album makes me excited to see where they go.

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