The year music critics surrendered to the War on Drugs

Philadelphia-based quartet’s third album, Lost In The Dream, received the kind of reviews artists dream of

It wasn’t the most obvious candidate for the album of the year; Lost In The Dream – the third album by Philadelphia-based quartet the War On Drugs is full of ethereal, hazy melancholy and repetitive, motorik beats.

Most critics remarked on its debt to a certain kind of widescreen Americana, comparing it to Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, less fashionable Bob Seger and Dire Straits, usually the ultimate critical brickbat.

But this hasn’t stopped Lost In The Dream storming critics’ end-of-the-year polls. Music monthlies Q and Uncut voted it album of the year, as did the Times and BBC Radio 6 Music. In the Guardian, it was just pipped by St. Vincent.

Lost In The Dream has also been declared the best of 2014 in numerous publications around the globe, from US monthly magazine Spin to Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

Along the way, the album has received the kind of reviews any artist dreams of. NME hailed “one of the year’s greatest albums”, the Evening Standard declared “a huge triumph” and even the Sun – more accustomed to celebrating chart pop – heralded “a magnificent musical voyage”.

Not that the War on Drugs frontman and songwriter Adam Granduciel was pondering any kind of impact when he began working on the album in early 2013. Coming off the back of a gruelling two-year tour and the end of a relationship, he found himself engulfed with feelings of isolation, paranoia and depression.

“I’d already started writing songs, then for about six months at the beginning of the year I found myself having no plans: no touring plans, nothing. I didn’t have to work. I was living in a house all by myself. Everything kinda came to a head.”

The 35-year-old says that the more he worked on the songs, the more his feelings started to make sense and came out in lyrics such as Eyes To The Wind’s line, “There’s a stranger living in me.

“The songs started to chime in that direction, so I took them even further.”

Although Lost In The Dream’s breakthrough is the culmination of nine years’ hard work, Granduciel says its success has been surreal. He has made three albums as the War On Drugs with various musicians (including acclaimed former guitarist Kurt Vile) after forming in 2005 and starting touring in his car.

Granduciel admits that he is slightly baffled why Lost in the Dream achieved what its predecessors didn’t. The 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues was well received and 2011’s Slave Ambient received glowing reviews, but did not achieve Lost In The Dream’s steamrollering critical and commercial mass which has seen it breach the American Top 30 and the Top 20 in the UK, where it has now gone silver.

“It feels strange, but it’s not lost on me how awesome it is. I’m not running through the streets holding up all the magazines and it’s not something I ever aspired to, but now it’s happening it’s exciting and I feel really blessed.”

He acknowledges that this third album is slightly more accessible and suggests that he consciously set out to make a record that would “sound awesome”, be “truthful” and that people would want to play all the time.

He agrees with reviewers’ comparisons to albums such as Springsteen’s Born In The USA and Rugby space rockers Spacemen 3’s 1988 album, The Perfect Prescription]: “They’re things I’ve listened to a lot in my life.”

He’s most thrilled with comparisons with the Waterboys’ epic 1984 album A Pagan Place (the War On Drugs have previously covered the title track) but doesn’t understand the Dire Straits comparison at all.

He suggests that Lost In The Dream’s insistent Krautrock rhythm (which the Guardian tagged as “Neu! covering Dancing In The Dark) derives from a dislike of flashy drummers. “I like a steady beat because it gives you the freedom to make all these different strokes all over the song.”

Perhaps there’s wider appeal in his coupling of an ethereal yet classic sound with universal themes of nostalgia, longing, regret and particularly powerlessness and anonymity. We don’t always hear them addressed so personally, powerfully or articulately.

“A lot of those things are important to me and I made them part of the music,” he concedes. “I guess those things are important in people’s lives.”

However, Lost In The Dream is by no means a dark or troubling record. Casting melancholy words against a widescreen, dreamlike backdrop has made for an unusually uplifting combination.

“I’ve always liked music that makes you feel good. Pop rock or whatever,” he admits. “When you’re listening to things intensely in your childhood, you notice little things and remember them all your life. I use a strings synthesiser, which is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen.”

Ever since the War On Drugs started, people have told Granduciel that his music would sound great in larger places. In June, they performed at Glastonbury (“at 1pm in the afternoon, but it was still awesome, a sea of people”).

However, after beginning the year in the smaller-sized venues they left on the last tour, acclaim has brought a sudden progression from clubs to huge theatres. This May, they were still playing at London’s 1,400-capacity Koko, but in February, will perform for two nights at the capital’s 4,900 capacity Brixton Academy, the biggest headline shows they’ve ever played.

“But it’s not like we’re suddenly playing huge venues that we’re unprepared for. We’ve been touring for six or seven years, so it’s been a really nice pace.”

Indeed, Granduciel insists that despite the welcome spotlight, his feet remain firmly on the ground. He argues that the best thing about the breakthrough is that it means he can continue making music and touring with a small group of friends – his musicians, a tour manager and two sound guys “for at least the next couple of years”.

He is in a “great, healthy” new relationship and is much happier – not because of the success, but because it has helped him become “a little more confident in myself. We’ve received attention for a genre that doesn’t necessarily force you into the spotlight,“ he decides.

“We made a record and played some shows, and people kept coming. The songs are still ringing true. It’s been a really cool way to deliver music to the people.”


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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