By Donovan Roche
Poised to take a victory lap following their GRAMMY Award win for Best Rock Album (2017’s A Deeper Understanding), The War on Drugs is embarking on an international tour that includes both weekends at Coachella and a stop at The Observatory North Park on April 15.
Fronted by vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Adam Granduciel, the Philly-based indie rock band has been riding a wave of popularity since the release of their critically acclaimed album last August.
Unlike most frenetically paced contemporary rock albums, A Deeper Understanding surprised many by taking its time, with the majority of the 10 tunes clocking in at six-plus minutes. Languorous songs, like the striking “Strangest Thing,” reveal themselves to you like a flower in bloom, opening with tender precision. Be prepared to enter a dream state when listening.
“The point of the record is watching yourself move between different versions of yourself,” Granduciel says, “and trying to either hold onto or figure out which one you’re more comfortable being—which version of yourself are you most true to?”
Musically, the album is filled with deeply layered instrumentation supplied by Granduciel (who also produced and co-engineered) and bandmates David Hartley (bass), Robbie Bennett (keyboards), Charlie Hall (drums), Jon Natchez (saxophone, keyboards) and Anthony LaMarca (guitar).
If unfamiliar with The War on Drugs’ sound, the first thing one tends to notice is the obvious Bob Dylan influence—in both Granduciel’s vocal tone and lyrical storytelling abilities. You’d be hard-pressed to not hear The Bard in songs such as “Pain” (the band’s first No. 1 single) or the 11-minute opus “Thinking of a Place.”
There are also shades of Springsteen, Petty, and even ‘80s rockers Talk Talk laced throughout The War on Drugs’ music; particularly on A Deeper Understanding, the band’s fourth studio album. But it never feels like they are imitating their predecessors. Instead, the listener is wrapped in expansive arrangements that are comfortably familiar yet entirely fresh—the sound is so original, in fact, there is nothing like it in today’s mainstream musical marketplace.
The neo-psychedelia six-piece formed in 2005, co-founded by Granduciel and Kurt Vile, who departed after the group’s first release, 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues, to pursue his solo career. The band released two more albums on indie label Secretly Canadian—Slave Ambient (2011) and Lost in the Dream (2014)—before signing a two-record deal with Atlantic, A Deeper Understanding being the first delivery.
In addition to besting albums from more established bands like Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age at the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards, A Deeper Understanding was nominated for the International Album of the Year award at the 2018 UK Americana Awards.
The last time The War on Drugs visited San Diego, this past December, they played at Valley View Casino Center as part of 91X’s Wrex the Halls holiday concert. With their GRAMMY win and snowballing fame, this may be the last time locals will have the opportunity to see them perform in a venue as intimate as The Observatory.
For the past 30 years, Donovan Roche has covered the world of music — from the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” to Prince’s unpronounceable name change to the unexpected rise of The War on Drugs.