A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs


It’s Roo’s birthday today. On the agenda is ice cream, flapjack and her sister. We don’t buy each other any presents, so I thought I would write about her favourite record.

We were at Royal Holloway College together. Roo is a year older (for six days, she is 2 years older) so she was in the same year as Ben, with whom she went out with for a few weeks. I try not to ask for details. Ben is renowned for keeping in touch with people and hence Roo and I attended several of his parties together in the 70s and 80s. We finally got together at a gig put on by the fathers at the school which Ben’s eldest daughter attended. They called themselves “The Grateful Dad”. Things could only get better.

In 2014, UNCUT made “Lost In The Dream” by The War On Drugs their record of the year. I had never heard of them but, in the spirit of seeking new music, I played it on Spotify and then bought the CD. After about 10 plays, I quite liked it, but not as much as I do now. I was sat here, in my “study” when I saw that they were playing at The Brighton Dome in a month’s time (February 2015). I asked Roo if she wanted to go and, to my surprise she said “yes”. The only tickets available were “restricted view” which meant that when we got there we were directed to seats very high up to the side, level with the front of the stage. There was nothing in the way but the view wasn’t what you would call a traditional view of the stage. However, it was incredibly interesting because we could clearly see the incredible number of gismos and gadgets that the band used to create their sound. When they came on, they were very loud. Not quite as loud as Sugar at The Corn Exchange but very loud. There was no way that Roo and I could exchange any comments through the concert. As well as having a great view of the stage, we had a great view of the mosh pit where, as they say, the crowd were going wild. I looked at Roo a few times, worried that she was hating it. She had a small smile on her face which may have been a grimace (as she would do if she were watching Nico) or may have been a smile (as she had when we were first saw Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell). I loved it and at the end of the concert I asked her what she thought of it to which she replied “They were fantastic”. Now, my wife is not given to hyperbole. In fact, after living with me for nearly 30 years, she has never said anything I have done was fantastic. I know that’s hard to believe but it’s true. This meant that The War On Drugs were something special.

We played “Lost In The Dream” a lot in the car over the next 2 years until in the Summer of 2017, to celebrate Record Store Day, The War On Drugs released a single called “Thinking Of A Place”. We also played that a lot and a month later they released another single called “Holding On”. In August 2017 they released a new record called “A Deeper Understanding.” In November 2017, Roo and I went to see them play twice in two nights. I was amazed that Roo wanted to do this – it smacked of seeing Van Morrison 8 times in a fortnight in 1983 – but I was very pleased to do it. The first time was at The Alexandra Palace and it was brilliant for many reasons. The band were outstanding and our disabled seats made it look like we were in the VIP section. We sat on a balcony at stage level while the hoi polloi had to stand in a socially very close manner, giving us envious looks. We had no idea that the Alexandra Palace was so huge. The picture on the left (below) is the view at the end of the gig showing our elevated position. Notice the envious look given by the woman in the bottom left of the picture. I bet she wishes she had paid extra for our VIP seats. Or maybe she’s wondering if we are famous. I don’t think Mike Gatting would go to A War On Drugs concert – he’s probably more of an Elton John fan, I reckon. Symmetrically, Ben and Anne were at the same gig as us at Portsmouth the following night where we managed to meet up for a pre gig pint while simultaneously getting a parking ticket because we forgot to put the disabled ticket on the dashboard. We had to make do with seats at the back at the Portsmouth Guildhall (see picture on the right below) which meant that in 3 gigs we had had 3 completely different views. Every time, the band were sensational.

In December 2018 The War On Drugs played at The O2 in London. I was surprised that they sold out London’s largest indoor venue although, to be fair, the upstairs parts were not used. Again, our VIP disabled seats were excellent. We were asked by the stewards if they could bring us any food and drink before the gig started and Roo was given a set list when it was all over.

The War On Drugs haven’t released a record since August 2017. Just by way of comparison, Fairport Convention released “What We Did On Our Holidays” in January 1969, “Unhalfbricking” in July 1969 and “Liege And Lief” in December 1969. No news on their next record but it’s going to have to be something amazing to be better than “A Deeper Understanding.”

Ben and Anne’s amazing daughter got married in September 2017. It was a truly wonderful day and Ben and Anne’s generosity was unbounded. By way of thank you, Roo and I took them out to lunch in Twickenham five weeks later. We had played “A Deeper Understanding” quite a lot since its release but hadn’t listened to it all the way through. For our drive to Twickenham on October 7th 2017, we put the record into the CD player in the car. We do normally talk to each other when driving but, quite spontaneously, we spent the whole journey in silence listening to the music. I don’t know if it’s possible to have spontaneous silence for 70 minutes but that’s what happened. We arrived in Twickenham just as the final track ended and looked at each other in astonishment and wonder, agreeing that it had been the most perfect car journey. No, I don’t mean because neither of us were talking but because the music was so astonishing.

When Roo and I got together in 1992 we amalgamated our record collections. She had about 450 records and I had probably about 600. Last year we sold our duplicates and there were about 90. That pretty much reflects our musical tastes. We have some common favourite artists – Kate Rusby, Alexi Murdoch, Jonny & Lucy, Lyle Lovett, The Band, The Beach Boys, Counting Crows, The Cure. She has introduced me to The Blue Aeroplanes; I have introduced her to Half Man Half Biscuit. I don’t really like Graham Parker; she hates Tim Buckley and Nico. Over the past 6 years we have played the two latest War On Drugs records more than anything else. This is where the Venn diagram of our tastes overlap. MnR=”The War On Drugs”. We have played “Thinking Of A Place” at least 1000 times in the 3 years since it was released. I know that’s hard to believe, especially considering it is over 11 minutes long but there have been whole car journeys to Cornwall when we have simply put the track on repeat. I’ve just played it all the way through and I’m about to put it on again. It is the most wonderful, restful, soothing piece of music I have ever heard and as it finishes, I always (internally) sigh with pleasure.

“Thinking Of A Place” is, as I say, over 11 minutes long. It starts with washes of keyboard chords before the main melody is played on a treated guitar. Adam Granduciel’s voice is not what I would call a strong voice, sometimes whispered and often compared to Dylan (although I can’t see that) but it’s gentleness suits the mood. Make no mistake, this is rock music – there are two guitars, bass, drums and keyboards/saxophone and the electric guitar solo that kicks in after 3 minutes reminds me of “Zuma” – era Neil Young. After 2 minutes soloing the mood and tempo quietens until just the keyboards remain. On the single that was released, this was the end of side 1. Live, members of the audience who don’t know the song, start cheering as if that is the end of the song. Smugly, Roo and I inwardly sneer a little at their lack of true fandom while waiting for Adam Granduciel to start singing again. After 8 minutes, a harmonica wails mournfully. (Do harmonicas always wail mournfully – is it possible to wail happily?) More vocals before a saxophone kicks in, sounding to me a little like guitar feedback. Slowly, over the course of a minute the song slows down to a beautiful sigh-inducing finish. It’s such a good song.

The whole record is excellent although “Thinking Of A Place” is the highlight. Here’s Rolling Stone: “Adam Granduciel achieves full-on sonic rapture with his band’s latest LP, an abstract-expressionist mural of synth-pop and heartland rock colored by bruised optimism and some of his most generous, incandescent guitar ever. Granduciel is still more about layered textures and tight-woven phrases than he is about noodling, and anxiety still lurks under heady aural comforts, laid out in his nasal, Dylanesque vocal tones. On “Up All Night,” literal or metaphoric gunshots ghost the narrative, and hot-forged guitar lines push through confetti-cannon electronics. The restrained builds make even subtle peaks feel ecstatic, like the spine-tingling slide-guitar ascent midway through “Holding On,” or the squirming feedback, played by Granduciel like a hooked trout, preceding his solo on “Strangest Thing.” There and elsewhere, his leads burn magnesium-bright, the sound of a modern, low-key guitar hero who knows just when to lay back, and when to let rip.”

What is “Heartland Rock”? If this is heartland rock, I love it. Happy Birthday Roo. 

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

8 thoughts on “A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs

  1. This is sublime…never listened to them before but it’s another purchase inspired by Wilfulsprinter! Costing me a bomb but rewriting my collection!

    Liked by 1 person

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