Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Album of the Year: The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

December 2, 2014  |  3:42pm

Adam Granduciel was in a rut. It was mid-2013, and the mastermind behind Americana psych-rock outfit The War on Drugs had come to a standstill with the album he’d been crafting for more than a year. He wasn’t want of ideas—he had plenty of those—but something had changed. He didn’t feel like himself. Coming off the breakthrough success of 2011’s Slave Ambient and extensive touring, he’d started asking questions: Was the band going anywhere? Were they connecting with anybody? Was this what he should be doing with his life? Was he contributing anything of note to the canon? Months earlier, on the morning of Feb. 17, Granduciel awoke “feeling like a totally different person.” He started experiencing heavy bouts of anxiety, suffering from debilitating panic attacks. He couldn’t focus, and he felt his world getting smaller. He worried about his age, about his impact. He worried about death, about the future. Everything was suddenly up in the air, on hold—including the then-unfinished Lost in the Dream LP, the band’s career-crowning third full-length and Paste’s number one album of 2014.
A creature of habit, Granduciel tried taking matters in his own hands. Having lived in the same three-story house in Philadelphia for a decade where he had cultivated his own musical style, he began changing his routine and life choices to help curb his anxieties. He quit drinking and smoking. He quit eating meat. He broke up with his girlfriend of four years. But some of the issues he just couldn’t shake. “It was a lot of different things just infiltrating my ability to live comfortably inside of myself,” he says.
Then something happened: the mixing of the record. With the songs all tracked and demoed, Granduciel and sound engineer Nicolas Vernhes went to work in the studio. Soon they were altering songs, moving things around, deconstructing certain elements and rebuilding others from the ground up. There wasn’t a riff or chord or beat on the album that wasn’t carefully calculated and mapped out. And while there are some phenomenal moments of mayhem on the record, each was deeply embedded in method and motive. Creatively, it was the push that Granduciel needed, but emotionally, it was a different story. “I had a really hard time,” he says. “Over the course of the day, I felt very shattered—just kind of shaking all the time. It was being afraid that you’ll have another panic blowout or something, and not really being able to manage your anxieties and your fear. I think some of it too is second-guessing whether or not you’re moving in the right direction, [musically and personally].”
Then, as the months wore on, after much back and forth between studio time and home retooling, Granduciel, despite his panic-stricken haze, finally completed the album with the help of his newly assembled band. He knew what he had—and he knew he had to share it, to get people to hear it, no matter what. “I knew I would finish it,” he says. “I just needed that last bit, that last push to get over Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon or something.”
It was the first step in a long, ongoing healing process—helping to quell some of those large, looming questions—but it wouldn’t be the last.
Despite its recent expansion into a six-piece, The War on Drugs has always been more of a solo project than a big collaborative effort. The band got its start with its 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, which Granduciel wrote and recorded alongside creative counterpart, friendly rival and War of Drugs cofounder Kurt Vile (who left after Wagonwheel Blues to pursue a solo career). Three years later, Granduciel found his place in indie greatness with Slave Ambient, exposing him to a wider, more receptive audience.
Lost in the Dream, however, reaches an entirely new level. Front to back, it’s hard to find a flaw on the album. From the catchy lead-in piano hook on “Under the Pressure” to the show-stopping chorus on “In Reverse,” the record is an emotional, ethereal experience. Each song is structured on the band’s already strong foundation—rich guitar layers, deep synth textures, wall-of-sound atmospherics, soaring guitar solos, catchy vocal melodies, poignant and cutting lyrics, uptempo beats and wailing organs—but builds upon it ceremoniously. It finds Granduciel growing more comfortable in his own skin.
“I had a little bit of a better idea of what I wanted to do,” he says when comparing it to Slave Ambient. “I had a little bit more money to spend in the studios, and I could spend a little more time on it, to really hack away at songs.” It also meant being more receptive to other members’ contributions while not relying so much on experimentalism. “I became a lot more inclusive of [keyboardist] Robbie [Bennet] and [bassist] Dave [Hartley] in the fold. I knew that I wanted there to be more piano, and I knew that I wanted it to be more classic-sounding.”
Initially, the album was met with acclaim and buzz. But while buzz fades, the splendor of Lost in the Dream never did. As 2014 wore on, the songs did the opposite—they festered, intensified, grew stronger. For me, each track seemed to expand in size and scope. Soundscapes I hadn’t noticed before began to appear. Little details and nuances popped up—a synth change here, a drum variation there, a heartsick lyric I hadn’t deciphered the first few times around—and all the while, lead riffs chugged and burned and faded into a wildly sonorous collage that bled all over the place like sonic warfare. There’s a universality to the record, a familiarity ingrained in the music and lyrics themselves that strike a nerve. “I feel like I got over a certain hump that I had while writing,” Granduciel says. Deep down, he knew he had something special.
A native of Dover, Massachusetts, Granduciel moved to Philadelphia “on a whim” about a decade ago after bouncing around from New England to Oakland and back again, figuring out what he wanted to do. He’d started to get serious about writing music, but he wasn’t sharing any of it. Then he saw a film that would impact him forever: the 2002 Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which depicts the circumstances surrounding the band’s creation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “I wanted to be like that,” Granduciel says. “I wanted to be in the studio, I wanted free-flowing ideas, I wanted a roomful of gear. An opportunity came to move to Philly, and that’s what I wanted—to be a little more outward making music and taking it more seriously and thinking about it.”
While in Philadelphia, he worked as a property manager to help pay the bills before devoting himself fully to music, holing up in his house and accumulating gear and recording equipment. Throughout The War on Drugs’ existence, the home has always served as a safe haven and creative think tank for the writing and tracking process. It played such an integral part of Lost in the Dream, in fact, that it was enshrined within the album art, mirroring the music’s feeling of familiarity and comfort.
But something else about the album rings with familiarity: Granduciel’s influences. Each War on Drugs album has, to some degree, shown shades of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young and plenty more, but perhaps none more overtly than on Lost in the Dream. The album takes the tried-and-true tactics of classic Americana and folk-rock and infuses it with layers and textures, fissures and peaks, tensions and releases. Granduciel marries modernity with tradition, taking what works and adjusting it slightly so as to add another dimension to the music. “Burning” could be straight out of a Springsteen songbook, but Granduciel has filled it with drum loops and synth samples; “In Reverse” could be something composed by Dylan, but its first three minutes are shrouded in swooning atmospherics; even the folksy title track, probably the least experimental track on the album, is anchored by ghostly tremolo guitars and a harmonica cloaked in reverb. Lost in the Dream makes the classics feel not only new but more relevant than ever.
In doing so, Granduciel makes the sound his own. “I wasn’t so much interested in trying to write something more modern [while] using these influences as much as I was just trying to like follow the method that I always have—and also trying to make my songwriting better,” he says. “I felt like we made enough decisions that propelled the record into something of our own.”
Like those influences, there’s a working-class element to the album. But while Granduciel’s muses might’ve anchored their dissent in economic oppression and social struggle, Granduciel grounds his in personal misgivings and emotional paralysis. These are internal, personalized battles, not external commentaries. It’s not the socially conscious Dylan but the inward-looking one that comes out on Lost in the Dream. (It should be no surprise, then, that earlier this year The War on Drugs covered “Tangled Up in Blue,” the first cut from Blood on the Tracks, probably Dylan’s most personal album. Like Dylan, Granduciel also uses a stage name; his real name is Adam Granofsky.) So, while Granduciel isn’t singing about getting a job for the Johnstown Company or working on Maggie’s farm, Lost in the Dream still channels those desolate feelings of isolation. The context is just more personalized. It evokes the problems plaguing the modern individual.
On “Eyes to the Wind,” for instance, when Granduciel sings, “There’s just a stranger living in me,” or, “I’m all alone here / Living in darkness,” the strife is all-enveloping, but what’s noticeable isn’t the anxiousness itself but the acceptance. “Just a bit rundown here at the moment,” he admits. Lost in the Dream is an album of the times, illustrating a period when people are learning to cope—when they’re beginning to realize things don’t always pan out as planned, or that settling is sometimes the only option left. For Granduciel, these fears are palpable. They’re real enough to reach out and touch, even if they’re difficult to grasp sometimes. Granduciel has gone beyond mere homage to his predecessors—he’s slipped into the role himself, taking up their me-against-the-world burden. Lost in the Dream is not mere shades or hints or echoes; it’s the real thing.
Seeing the band at the Hideout Block Party in Chicago earlier this year, I wasn’t shocked at how well the songs translated live—given how much time and effort they’ve put into creating a full band experience—but I was pleasantly surprised. My wife and I were farther back in the audience, about 100 yards from the stage, but we could easily see Granduciel’s denim-jacket-clad frame hunched over his guitar as he went to town. Like ghosts, he and the band would appear and vanish behind waves of white smoke and red haze that were busy shifting in the wind. As a six-piece, the band’s sound filled out the festival, engulfing the crowd in gradients of guitar, swaths of keyboard and pulsations of drums and bass, as well as overtones of saxophone for some of the record’s more peaking moments.
Playing shows is more than a means for Granduciel to support his art; it gives him a firsthand glimpse of the fans connecting with his music. For a person who, months earlier, felt so closed off and desperate, playing shows offers a chance at validation. It gives Granduciel the chance to witness the receptiveness to his hard work. In a way, touring has become a road to recovery for Granduciel’s initial doubts about direction. It has allowed him to take others’ reactions and reevaluate what the album has meant to not only them but himself. “I think the response to songs has been helpful,” he says. “It feels like a warm group of people coming to our shows. Seeing what the record became and how it’s resonated with people—it’s been a real blessing to have the record kind of change the way I see myself.”
That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing. The band’s soaring live sound, after all, is what led to the infamous—albeit one-sided—feud with Mark Kozelek. The trouble started when Kozelek (of Sun Kil Moon) took exception to The War on Drugs’ sound bleeding over to Sun Kil Moon’s stage at Ottawa Folk Fest. But what started as an off-color joke (i.e., Kozelek calling their sound “beer commercial lead-guitar,” writing a song called “War on Drugs Suck My Cock,” and publicly challenging the band to let him join them onstage to play it) soon evolved into a pitiful one-sided spar where Kozelek came across as more out-of-touch and bitter than anything (having actually recorded said song and later mocking Granduciel’s comments about Kozelek’s ill-mannered antics in another trolling song titled “Adam Granofsky Blues”).
Granduciel, though, doesn’t give it much thought these days. “It’s definitely been a lot more blown out of proportion on paper than it really is in my head,” he says. “Anytime I say anything, it becomes a headline and is taken out of context. At the end of the day, I have a good sense of humor about everything; I’m not sulking in the corner. I don’t know. It is what is.”
Years from now, when the feud is forgotten, what will be left standing is a stellar album. What will be left will be the healing effects that creating the album afforded, not just the anxieties that they once personified or were teased out by a jaded, alienating songwriter. Because Lost in the Dream has an uncanny ability to transcend—be it decade, genre, audience, you name it. Its sound is enormous, all-encompassing. For all of the turmoil impinged upon Granduciel’s psyche in the year leading up to Lost in the Dream, the album sounds anything but strained. It sounds as if it were always waiting to be written—that it just took Granduciel to finally put a pen to the page, his fingers to the fretboard. The record may have been a document of crippling anxiety, but now it more so serves as the revelation, the remedy.
For all the grandiosity and self-assuredness that Lost in the Dream oozes, Granduciel is anything but. On the phone in LA, he’s unassuming and humble as he tells me his band’s plans to play a show in Portland before heading to Australia in a few days. There’s no ego to stroke or sense of entitlement to placate. And while separating the music from the man may take away from Lost in the Dream’s genius, it highlights its malleability—how it lets you place your own angst and grievances within the music’s ebb and flow. People relate to it. It’s an organic, honest account of playing the cards you’re dealt and making the most of them.
It’s hard to stay grounded when talking about the album, but the significance of Lost in the Dream cannot be overstated. To make the year’s best record, Granduciel had to take a step back and reevaluate his relationship with his own craft. It forced the perfectionist in him to strive for flawlessness and then deliver upon that promise. And while the record didn’t magically heal Granduciel’s anxiety, it has helped open him up to new experiences and opportunities so that healing might be a possibility. “Making the record was not an easy thing. It was not cathartic to make it or anything. It wasn’t like when I was making it that all of these problems disappeared,” he says. “But I think looking back on it in retrospect has helped me to become a more open person.”
And that’s the true majesty of the record: from all the muck and malaise that midlife produces, something beautiful and permanent has been revealed—an enduring contribution to the canon. “I don’t mind you disappearing / Because I know you can be found”—Granduciel may as well have been singing about himself on “In Reverse”; by immersing himself in his music, he has unearthed something valuable and has emerged all the better for it. His missteps and doubts have led to something timeless, profound—suggesting Granduciel is anything but lost.
Granduciel’s own future is uncertain—he might or might not be moving out of his house in Philadelphia and heading for LA or New York, and he’s unsure if the next War on Drugs record will be more siloed or more collaborative or “maybe a mixture”—but for the moment he isn’t concerned, and that’s certainly an improvement from where he was a year ago. In fact, he speaks like someone whose best years are ahead. When asked where the band goes from here, he replies, “I really don’t know. If you look at rock history, for instance, I don’t know; I’m not comparing us to Led Zeppelin—by any means—but they made Houses of the Holy after Zeppelin IV.” He also points out that Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde came after Bringing It All Back Home, and Springsteen’s The River succeeded Darkness on the Edge of Town. Granduciel isn’t equating his work with such legendary benchmarks; he’s merely implying that the sky’s the limit—and for the first time in a long time, he’s able to admit that to himself.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” he says. “This record has done great things for us as a band, and at the end of the year, people are still talking about. And that’s a really special thing. I just want to keep trying to deliver on that promise and keep following my instinct as a songwriter and do what feels right. And hopefully, when it’s time to mix the next record, I’ll be looking at a bunch of songs that are blowing my mind.”
To that end, Granduciel says he hasn’t “frozen up” thinking about recording the next album, and as of right now is excited to make another one. But for now, reflecting on the past year, he’s content to enjoy the moment that he’s earned. “It’s been busy and it’s been exciting and it’s been rewarding,” he says. “It’s been all the things that life should be, I think.”

Interview: Adam Granduciel
Band of the Year: The War on Drugs
Album of the Year: Lost in the Dream
Albums of the Year (No. 2): Lost in the Dream
Concert Review: The War on Drugs in New Zealand

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