The mark of a mature artist is the ability to steal from other artists and make something that’s been done before sound new. Bob Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie and the Anthology of American Folk Music, and he was able to forge his towering influence on American rock, which indelibly appears throughout A Deeper Understanding, the fourth album by the Philadelphia-based sextet The War On Drugs. Like their last acclaimed 2014 album Lost in a Dream, frontman, chief songwriter and producer Adam Granduciel transplants Dylan’s melodic and controversial nasally vocal style into a mélange of dance and grunge-tinged pop rock about finding a better perspective on love and self. Though neither its sound nor its theme is new, A Deeper Understanding is at least a fresh take.
A shared admiration for Dylan is reportedly what led the band’s founding members Granduciel and Kurt Vile—who left the band in 2011 to start a successful solo career—to talk about collaborating at a party in 2003. Since then, and after three studio albums on indie label Secretly Canadian, the band has signed with Atlantic Records and has finessed a masterful and infectious adaptation of Baby Boomer album rock: light-hearted songs about longing for love or experience, simple major or minor chords, lucid vocals, irregular harmonica and requisite guitar solos.
The fourth album’s classic rock foundation bumps against essential elements gleamed from so-called alternative rock in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Drummer Charlie Hall brings in frequent dance beats, alongside keyboardist Robbie Bennett’s swelling and deflating of electronica synth. And several deceptively chaotic guitar solos, akin to Nirvana or Yo La Tengo, erupt with an aberrant, noisy and sustained cry and then instantly revert to the chorus riff.
That is to say, A Deeper Understanding is like a cross between a Neil Young, My Bloody Valentine, and a less eccentric Talking Heads. And what makes the album sound fresh is that you don’t know where its instrumental concoction will take you. One moment the song’s piano, electric guitar and vocals are indistinguishable. Then the next, they break from the pack and grow into their own path for a minute or so, only to have Granduciel’s familiar polished voice, mined from the vinyl deeps of dad (or grandpa) rock, return as the song wraps up.
The problems with the album are that even the good songs drag on a bit too long (the album’s standout track “Thinking of a Place” clocks in at over eleven minutes), while the slower and softer tracks like “Knocked Down” and “Pain” can be stultifying and forgettable.
Granduciel’s lyrical content focuses on the fact that “there’s always something bigger” that your life could be, as he sings on the high energy “Nothing To Find.” That is a true observation, good sir, but a trite one. And this theme does not light the fires of our imagination like the works of Granduciel’s shade-sporting, curly-haired Nobel Laureate idol. Despite the group’s mastery of the well-trodden paths of American rock, A Deeper Understanding is no Blonde on Blonde. It’s just a good, old-fashioned larceny done well.
Notable Tracks: “Nothing to Find” | “Thinking of a Place” | “Up All Night”