Ten years ago this June, the War On Drugs released their debut album Wagonwheel Blues. At that point, nobody could’ve expected what would eventually happen for this project and its mastermind, a 30-something dude in Philly named Adam Granduciel. There have been plenty of indie-rock acts who have ascended to something resembling mainstream stature in this generation. The National, St. Vincent, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem, Father John Misty. All are surprising or curious in their own ways, but the strangest and most unexpected case is that of the War On Drugs — the supposed purveyors of “beer commercial lead-guitar shit,” now often widely understood in the reductive and not-exactly-accurate capacity of being a group of classic-minded revivalists.
Perhaps, it would make sense for them to gradually find a larger audience, at worst an exercise in retro comfort food that could appeal to older listeners. But did anyone imagine this? Would anyone have guessed that the War On Drugs were to set to become one of the biggest new rock bands in an era almost completely devoid of big new rock bands?
Ever since the 2014 release of Lost In The Dream, it’s been a steady and continuing rise, with the attendant increase in exposure. They signed a two-record deal with Atlantic. Having started a relationship with actress Krysten Ritter, Granduciel wound up gracing the pages of Us Weekly. Then, last year’s A Deeper Understanding, one of the best albums of 2017, managed to not only capitalize on the artistic growth that had preceded it, but continued to heighten the War On Drugs’ profile. They had their first #1 single when “Pain” reached the top of the Adult Alternative Songs chart earlier this month and, this past weekend, A Deeper Understanding went up against releases from the likes of Metallica and Queens Of The Stone Age for the Best Rock Album award at the Grammys. Deservedly, but still somewhat shockingly, they came out ahead of those legacy names and won.
Rewind to just before Lost In The Dream: Its predecessor, 2011’s vivid Slave Ambient, had earned some acclaim. It was the kind of album that had people saying “You should check these guys out,” but it was still a niche concern. They were poised to get more attention when Lost In The Dream came around, but now they’re becoming one of the sole avatars of modern rock music in the landscape. The torch-bearers, the ones expected to keep it alive and move it forward.
If you go further back than that, you’ll find modest beginnings that wouldn’t have left anyone with the impression that this was the road the War On Drugs had ahead of them, even if you can see a legible arc in hindsight. That debut Wagonwheel Blues belied just how unique and gifted a sonic architect Granduciel is. Working with limited resources, Granduciel’s first outing was a grainier, more washed-out attempt at the ambitious, dense avant-classicist rock he’d soon perfect on subsequent albums.
Here’s what people miss with the overarching revivalist narrative that’s hung over the Drugs with their last two albums, the idea that they’re simply trafficking in the sounds of ’80s boomer heartland rock, revisiting mid- or late-career shots at contemporary relevance from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Tom Petty, and Dire Straits. Though at that point this was already a more unusual facet of classic rock history to mine — one that, in our cycles of nostalgia and revivals, had still been left essentially unturned — people elide over the more esoteric reference points Granduciel mixed in. The noise drones and krautrock rhythms, the shoegaze demeanor and new wave glistens, the engulfing ambience that blossomed from it all colliding. They miss the more off-the-beaten-path names that Granduciel cites as important influences, like the Waterboys. (Play the latter’s “A Pagan Place” alongside the horn-driven build of “Under The Pressure”; As it happens, Granduciel covered that Waterboys track in the years leading up to Lost In The Dream.)
Obviously, those classicist impulses are real, too. It’s not the wrong way to talk about the War On Drugs, it’s just not as right as it could be. The reason their music stood out earlier on, the reason the more recent albums feel so warmly familiar and intoxicatingly enigmatic at the same time, is because of the skewed, alternate reality take Granduciel builds via some maddened blend of old-school songwriting discipline and studio-scientist atmospherics. The best Drugs songs, the ones that don’t so much quote or reinterpret the canon as exhume and warp it, are the results of Granduciel’s fixation on minute details and textures in service of a grand, final product.
“It’s hard having this obsession with songs,” he told me when I spent two days in Philly talking to him ahead of Lost In The Dream four years ago. “Their potential is always going to be more than you can get in the moment. I always want to know how far it can go.”
That outlook has yielded difficult writing and recording processes for Granduciel, but it’s also proven fruitful. You can pore over the lyrics in War On Drugs songs, and you might not decipher much; there are often placeholders, burning on down the road and all that business. Archetypal Americana/folk/rock iconography. But that’s part of the genius of it — because the words are placeholders, they contribute to the overall impact and meaning of the Drugs’ music the same as Granduciel’s obsessive approach to decisions about sounds and structure.
The War On Drugs are far from retro-fetishists, and they are also out-of-time even in a diffuse and diverse indie landscape (or, since they’re in the big leagues now, in a rock landscape that doesn’t quite know what it is today). What’s poetic and enduring about their music is the way it travels through the past and today to deliver rock music that is surface-level enjoyable for the classicist-minded listener, but unveils foreign territory the more you sit with it. It’s the sound of someone interpreting memories you’ve received of a time you can’t quite remember yourself. It’s the sound of ghosts, reanimated. Granduciel’s gift for hooks is what makes the songs grab you initially. But it’s those more ineffable qualities that make the songs linger at the edges of your consciousness, the place they’re born in and the place in which they thrive and grow.
It took a while to wrangle all that, considering it’s an abstract balance to strike. Don’t get me wrong: There is a lot to love about the War On Drugs’ earliest days, too. Wagonwheel Blues had giddy, buzzing tracks that moved at a breakneck speed, like “Taking The Farm” and “A Needle In Your Eye #16,” where you could hear a sort of joyous excitement as Granduciel began to define his otherworldly presentation of rock music. It had a fan favorite and setlist standby in “Arms Like Boulders.” In beginning to incorporate ambient segues and drifting, exploratory epics, it laid the groundwork for Granduciel to fully realize that version of the Drugs on Slave Ambient three years later, songs like “There Is No Urgency” and “Show Me The Coast” hinting at the far-out horizons he was chasing and would soon find. But knowing what we know now, you can’t help but look back and see it as rough sketches for everything that came next, for a more muscular rendering of the vision to the unforeseen directions Granduciel would shoot off into afterwards. For those reasons, Wagonwheel Blues isn’t represented on this list. Those songs are all very good. But do they really stand up to what he did next?
Even before his surprise Grammys win, Granduciel had been leveling up in some capacity on each record. Over the last 10 years, we’ve watched a man become a master of his craft, honing a sound that manages to lure people with its seemingly well-worn tropes, and then firmly grasp them with its subversions of those same tropes. And Granduciel has been rewarded for that vision, not just with a bit of mainstream recognition at the Grammys or a major-label record deal, but with more and more listeners finding their way into the enveloping soundscapes he’s provided.
Stories like this are sometimes accidental. A musician is over there doing their thing, and an audience gradually finds them. I used to think of the War On Drugs being one of those left-field, happenstance success stories; maybe they still are. But in light of just how far Granduciel has taken this in recent times, I’m reminded of two other things he said back in 2014, two things now recontextualized in my mind. Even after making an album as beautiful and revelatory as Slave Ambient, he was hungry, unsatisfied. “I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the canon in the way that I wanted to,” he told me. “I stumbled upon finishing Slave Ambient. I wasn’t really saying anything.” Whether you totally agree or disagree with his sentiment there, it’s what fueled the exhaustive, insular process of crafting Slave Ambient’s masterpiece successor. And since that album came out, we’ve been watching as the gravitational pull of this band grows ever stronger. As they’ve begun to enter the canon themselves.
That reminds me of something else Granduciel said during that visit. We were talking about where the band could go from there. He still wasn’t even sure if he wanted to make music forever, if that was the life for him. But that ambition simmered. He talked of the concept of playing “Eyes To The Wind” in front of 50,000 people. At the time, it very much seemed a concept, a leap too far for a rock band like the War On Drugs to make in the 2010s. I certainly thought of it that way, at least — it was fun to imagine, but how could it happen? Maybe Granduciel didn’t think of it that same way, though. And now, seeing their name creep up festival posters, seeing what they’ve achieved just an album later: That vision is coming true.
10. “Your Love Is Calling My Name” (from Slave Ambient, 2011)
In the fine tradition of their classic rock forebears, the War On Drugs have a lot of songs that feel custom-built for long drives down endless highways. On the latter two Drugs albums, this has often meant brisk but steady rockers. Back on Slave Ambient, it meant the crystalline rush of “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” a song that actually puts you in danger of speeding down said highways. Here, the beat was more motorik than “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” and fittingly the rest of its instrumentation — the festering bed of synth textures, the flickering transmission of the guitar licks — conjure up more fantastical scenes than later Drugs songs, like the highway you’re speeding down happens to be in a retro-futuristic cityscape.
9. “Baby Missiles” (from Slave Ambient, 2011)
Remember that bit about Wagonwheel Blues being the dry run for Granduciel perfecting certain ideas later on? “Baby Missiles” is the platonic ideal of a certain kind of old Drugs song, the racing rocker built on infectious cacophony. Before you could hear some more Petty in his vocals, “Baby Missiles” exemplified Granduciel as a singer, the Dylan sing-speak working its way around sweaty Springsteen melodies. And, musically, it collapsed a whole lot of Slave Ambient’s elements into a furious three-and-a-half-minute burst, with instrumentation that, when singled out, wouldn’t even sound like it goes together. There are parts that sound more drawn-out or midtempo, that should be working against the more runaway facets. And yet it all comes together into a sustained firework, relying on a rhythm track that actually sounds like a train barreling down the tracks, about to come off the rails and shoot into the stratosphere like, well, a missile.
8. “Strangest Thing” (from A Deeper Understanding, 2017)
If there’s one thing you could hold against the twilit Lost In The Dream, it’s that its slow songs didn’t always go anywhere. A track like “Suffering,” as the stereotype goes, moves like molasses, and it doesn’t necessarily reward you properly over the course of its lengthy run time. This was one thing that was so striking about A Deeper Understanding, how much more written Granduciel’s ballads now were, how the more brooding or introspective tracks, like “Strangest Thing” or the equally great closer “You Don’t Have To Go,” now built to holy-shit climaxes that were beyond gratifying.
You know the moment I’m talking about with “Strangest Thing.” It is, rightfully, one of the moments from A Deeper Understanding that plenty of fans and writers have singled out as summing up Granduciel’s power with building and releasing drama, with a hook, with an instrumental break, with an immediately immortal guitar part. For almost three minutes, the song lopes along with a very pretty melody, already an improvement on some of the older Drugs ballads. And then, out of nowhere, it peels open into this insanely gorgeous guitar and synth riff functioning as a chorus, and then it hits you with a solo, and then it hits you with that riff over and over, washing over you for the remainder of its duration. In short, Granduciel starts in one place, maybe a predictable place. And then he shows you something that is mesmerizingly beautiful, and a song becomes something completely different than what you thought it was going to be.
7. “In Chains” (from A Deeper Understanding, 2017)
At nearly 70 minutes and heavy with dustily glittering details and sonic information, A Deeper Understanding is a lot to take in. Then, almost hiding towards the end of the album, there is the album’s totemic high point “In Chains.” In a reversal compared to Lost In The Dream, many of the best and most impactful songs on A Deeper Understanding are the meditative moments rather than the rockers. “In Chains” lands somewhere in between, but is also the kind of epic, expansive rocker of the album in the mold of Dream’s “An Ocean In Between The Waves.” Months later, it feels as if this song still has layers and melodies to unravel: It’s a steadily propulsive giant packed to the brim with little piano and guitar and synth riffs that echo and compliment and pile on top of each other. Then, of course, there’s that climactic moment five minutes and 40 seconds in, when the huge “Be My Baby”-style beat breaks everything down for a second before the rest of the song sails off into the sunset. It’s a comprehensive portrait of everything Granduciel does well.
6. “Burning” (from Lost In The Dream, 2014)
In their current iteration, even a lot of the Drugs’ uptempo, poppier numbers don’t exactly take off. There is control, until Granduciel lets them drift off into dreamscapes, the places between waking and sleep, the places of altered perceptions. That isn’t the case with “Burning,” one of the Drugs rockers with an actual, proper chorus, and one that feels like it’s gliding higher and higher as it goes along, right up until that moment of ecstasy where Granduciel double-tracks his vocals and harmonizes with himself. People have noted the strains of “Dancing In The Dark” and “Young Turks” in this one, which makes it one of the quintessential Drugs tracks in another sense: It’s one of the clearest examples of Granduciel tweaking something buried in your memory, and twisting that familiarity to his own use, to make you feel something old and new at once.
5. “Thinking Of A Place” (from A Deeper Understanding, 2017)
I’ll be honest with you: When I first heard “Thinking Of A Place,” I was worried. I didn’t hear what everyone else heard after years of patiently waiting for Granduciel to followup his breakthrough. I heard what I had most feared: him doubling down on the aesthetics and writing of Lost In The Dream, gearing up to give us an album full of very strung-out, very long ambles in the mode of Lost In The Dream’s most ramshackle, wandering moments. As it goes with this band, the surface can lie, and like the rest of A Deeper Understanding, the songs that felt like a direct continuation of Lost In The Dream served to refine and, ahem, deepen what Granduciel was doing on the latter.
So, “Thinking Of A Place” slowly but surely appeared akin to “Strangest Thing,” a more robust and earworm-y vein of Granduciel’s balladry. Even so: Why on God’s green Earth does any rock song of this nature need to be 11 minutes? You’d be forgiven for asking that. I asked that. But, damn, does Granduciel make a case for it. Maintaining the same unhurried beat, “Thinking Of A Place” gently flits through memories and snapshots from far-flung places and times, each return of that unshakeable guitar/keys hook and each unspooling guitar eruption the gestures that light up those past moments, making them alive again. It’s key that the title is vague — “a place,” as if it could be a specific, unnamed location or just, well, a place, the basic idea of a lost memory or experience. Maybe it does mean something more specific to Granduciel. But for us, it’s an elusive and weaving track that appropriately has the cyclical but free-associative shape of a recurring daydream. Given that so many of the best War On Drugs songs play with these tensions — the past and now, reminiscence and obliteration, nostalgia and the abandonment of what we thought was familiar — “Thinking Of A Place” soon came to feel like one of the most important entries in their discography, playing with time and recollection and dreams both musically and narratively.
4. “Under The Pressure” (from Lost In The Dream, 2014)
There are a lot of ways to write a great opener. Go punchy, go mysterious, go slow-burn; Issue a mission statement, offer a feint that only teases what’s to come next. With “Under The Pressure,” Granduciel managed to do it all at once. Somehow one of his catchiest and bleariest compositions at once, “Under The Pressure” was the opening salvo for Lost In The Dream, and it is a journey. It begins in that suggestive mode, the faint sunrise of a new story. Then Granduciel shows you how an expert incrementally builds a song up, layering hook and instrument upon hook and instrument as the song surges forward, seeming like it must break under its own weight eventually but refusing to do so before its explosive middle section delivers complete catharsis. And then, when it’s over, it leaves you in a vast, droning sea for its final minutes. Acting as an overture for the moods and textures and scope of the album to come, it was the perfect introduction to the technicolor haze of Lost In The Dream. In the mold of all-time classic openers — a list it deserves to be on — “Under The Pressure” is the sound of a new world slowly revealing itself before you.
3. “Red Eyes” (from Lost In The Dream, 2014)
Any War On Drugs fan who was around before Lost In The Dream has to remember the first time they heard “Red Eyes.” “Under The Pressure” might have opened the album, and thus introduced the whole work, but “Red Eyes” was our first taste. It felt different: It was a little more world-weary, a little grittier and sandier, a little more nocturnal, than the kaleidoscopic webs of Slave Ambient. It sounded great: a dusk anthem not unlike the modern anthems written by Granduciel’s pseudo-contemporaries in the National, anthems a little more drained and weathered and appropriate for our times. And then, that moment, the original instant-climax holy-shit War On Drugs writing trick that presaged all the others that’d follow on Lost In The Dream and in “Strangest Thing” and “In Chains” and several others on A Deeper Understanding.
Again, you know the moment. Just under two minutes into this worn road song, Granduciel decided he couldn’t reign in its momentum anymore: “Woo!” It’s one of the most recognizable instances in the Drugs catalog, and not a word Granduciel has shied away from elsewhere. But there, in isolation, right before that exultant guitar break. It is one of the moments of pure exhilaration Granduciel’s allowed in his music thus far, exhilaration despite that world-weariness, despite that haze he’s fighting through across the record. Its the type of joyousness that gives you goosebumps, because when you heard it, you were convinced that Granduciel knew he had something special on his hands. And you were convinced that when you finally heard the entirety of Lost In The Dream, there was no way he was going to be wrong.
2. “Come To The City” (from Slave Ambient, 2011)
First, a disclaimer: This entry should really read “The Animator/Come To The City,” and it should have an accompanying video of the two tracks side-by-side as they are on Slave Ambient, but for some reason YouTube still lacks a decent quality video of this. Chances are you know what I’m talking about anyway. “Come To The City” is a churning storm on its own, but it’s all the more potent for how it seamlessly rises out of “The Animator.” The latter is, in turn, a beautifully trippy ambient piece when listened to alone, all celestial layers of synth and saxophone drones. They grow louder, intensify ever so slightly. And then that churning beat from “Come To The City” starts to call in from the distance, getting a little closer until all the psychedelic clouds of “The Animator” start to part and make way for Granduciel’s voice, the human presence bringing the whole thing back down to earth.
Those ambient elements never totally dissipate; instead, they become the bed upon which the rest of “Come To The City” floats up and up, its clattering stomp pushing you headlong into a proto-“Red Eyes” moment as Granduciel delivers a “Woohoo!” and aqueous guitar break by way of a chorus. It’s a different kind of ocean than a lot of the later Drugs songs. There’s less clarity. The climax comes in the form of near-unintelligible refrains from Granduciel as the growing swarm of of the song swallows him up. Taken together, “The Animator” and “Come To The City” form his first expertly-crafted epic, an arc as lush and rewarding as any of the many epics to follow. This was his first masterpiece.
1. “An Ocean In Between The Waves” (from Lost In The Dream, 2014)
The War On Drugs’ best song is, fittingly, a paradox. It completely stands alone, and yet bears elements of everything that this band does well. It stretches out like a bleeding watercolor, and yet is emphatic throughout, a drumbeat both kraut- and heartland-rock propelling the whole thing forward. It is their ultimate highway song. It is their ultimate climax song, the credits running when you’ve finally managed to wrap your hands around the horizon at the end of the highway. Its rising drama is in no rush, but at the same time the song barrels headlong forward, seeking and seeking some destination it may have yet to identify. It is, by War On Drugs standards, actually somewhat minimalist. Far from the blown-out synthscapes of Slave Ambient or the towering patinas of A Deeper Understanding, it is almost skeletal at points: just that beat, Granduciel’s ragged melody, guitars and synths flashing at the periphery but waiting, and waiting some more, until they decide to cascade over the track. It’s euphoria and melancholy coexisting in some enigmatic middle zone. It hits you, on every visceral and emotional level, for the entirety of its seven minutes. And then at the end, it crashes out into diffuse tendrils of smoke, having changed you but itself remaining cryptic, having lodged itself into your soul but insinuating it still has more for you to uncover, years later. It’s everything.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.