The War on Drugs’ ‘A Deeper Understanding’ Is an Expansive, Emotional Journey

Following the triumphant success of 2014’s “Lost in the Dream,” The War on Drugs might have sent a shiver through their hipster fanbase with the news that they had signed with Atlantic Records. The group allayed all fears, however, with the release of lead-off single “Thinking of a Place” – an 11-minute epic that leans heavy on fuzz-drenched whammy soloing, trippy reverb and distantly crooned vocals. True to the advance’s promise, The War on Drugs know exactly who they are, big label or small, they’re keen to delve even further into their signature sound on their fourth album “A Deeper Understanding.”

Yes, from the first peels of warbly synths and distant keys on “Up All Night,” the group makes it clear that their blissed-out spin on Americana is here to stay. Don’t be fooled by the synthpop drop-in on the chorus complete with electro drum samples, syncopated bassline, and hip-swiveling groove; it isn’t long before an overdriven guitar solo again burrows its way into the center of the track – every bit as crucial to the song’s verve as Adam Granduciel’s raspy, whispered and wide-eyed lyrics.

Even in its moments of “Born in the U.S.A.”-style Heartland synth panache, it’s clear that the real touchstones are the less era-bound works of Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. The thick spacious ambience and electronic flirtations are just icing on the cake – stylistic decisions – to convey another batch of picaresque War on Drugs tunes. Aside from the opener and the similarly “Dancing in the Dark”-esque tracks “Nothing to Find” and “Holding On,” these songs are in no rush to do anything other than discover an emotional truth and inhabit it as long as prudence allows. The atmosphere is dense, as sprawling jams like “Strangest Thing,” “In Chains,” and the aforementioned “Thinking of a Place” unfurl their meanings in a laidback fashion over repeated listens.

This unrushed mindset is also indicative of the group’s unshakeable confidence, allowing songs to softly speak the truth as Granduciel’s impressionistic lyrics and swirling guitar textures paint reality with a vivid palette. What’s more, his bandmates are on this same spiritual plane with him. From Robbie Bennett’s lilting ivory tickles on “Knocked Down” to Charlie Hall’s brushy drum work on “Pain,” the whole group functions single-mindedly to develop the sentiment of each dusty gem.

If the album has a general failing, it might be that after the breakout moment of “Lost in the Dream,” the record seems more about digging its heels in than taking listeners someplace new. Aside from the general preferential treatment that’s given to synths this time around, not much seems to have changed. For those who haven’t found a diving rod to get to “the point” of what The War on Drugs is all about, this is hardly the album to convince you that they aren’t the stony jam rockers you’ve always suspected them of being (they are); however, if you are thusly attuned, the path couldn’t be clearer. These dense, literate, and tuneful epics have the ability to lead you into expansive emotional realms that are hardly rivaled in today’s music – but it’ll only work if you have the time and concern to take the long, strange trip with them. For those ready to enjoy the ride, it’s more about the journey than the destination, anyway.

A Deeper Understanding” is available Aug. 25 on Apple Music.