Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: The War On Drugs I Don’t Live Here Anymore

Atlantic
2021
Atlantic
2021

After A Deeper Understanding, Adam Granduciel couldn’t really take it any further. It sounded like he had thrown everything at his follow-up to the War On Drugs’ 2014 breakthrough Lost In The Dream. Runtimes sprawled. The songs were incredibly dense with layers and ideas, sometimes almost impenetrably so. It was the same hallucinogenic spin on rock music lost to the dust of time, but now Granduciel had the ability to make it even more epic in scale. If he’d tried to do that again, you could imagine diminishing returns, or music becoming inert under its own weight. So instead, he took the precise sonic wizardry he’d learned on Lost In The Dream and A Deeper Understanding, and he applied it to music that is more scaled back and direct. The War On Drugs have faced high expectations before, but perhaps never as feverish as now, following the steady ascent of Lost In The Dream into the Grammy-winning major-label debut A Deeper Understanding. With I Don’t Live Here Anymore, they’ve delivered on the hype once more.

I Don’t Live Here Anymore is essentially the exact album I hoped Granduciel would make after the last two. Much has already been made of the idea that, after years of Granduciel dubiously trying to refute his perfectionist reputation even as he released albums as meticulous as A Deeper Understanding, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is a looser record. It is, in some ways — raw and fleeter of foot compared to its predecessor. But Granduciel still crams a ton of ideas into these songs, it’s just that he’s streamlined and compacted it all. The result is Drugs music that is synthier, brighter, punchier. It feels like a marriage of the earlier albums’ ranginess and the later albums’ impeccable atmospheres, a summation and a new chapter all at once.

“Living Proof,” the album’s opener and lead single, is a quiet curtain rise and something of a feint. It’s not entirely misleading: In its rough-hewn intimacy, it previews the more immediate iteration of the War On Drugs that exists here, and the fact that it came together live in the room aligns with the album’s slightly more collaborative nature. But from there on out, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is mostly in take-no-prisoners mode. Between reflective beginnings and endings, the album spends much of its time going for the jugular. This is music that plays like Granduciel was acutely aware that he’d soon be headlining big festival stages and Madison Square Garden, and he had to come armed with the songs for it.

As a result, pretty much everything on this album hits — and, save the title track, I Don’t Live Here Anymore’s pre-release singles have done little to prepare you for it. As soon as the prologue of “Living Proof” concludes, I Don’t Live Here Anymore fires off into the sky. First, it’s in prime Drugs territory, the psychedelic highway pulse of “Harmonia’s Dream” steadily gliding through more and more musical ideas until a synth riff midway launches the song into the stratosphere. “I Don’t Wanna Wait” is a revelation: Ditching “Boys Of Summer” for Phil Collins, Granduciel crafts a creeping, electronic backdrop for a story of lovelorn lust that builds and builds to a massive chorus.

“Victim” is another marvel, leaning once more into the electronic elements of the Drugs’ sound for a moody, spacey track that eventually locks into a new groove and becomes more desperate and emphatic as it goes. You think the album’s going to pause for a breath when “Old Skin” begins as a restrained piano song, but then halfway through guitars bubble up and suddenly the band erupts into a Tom Petty-esque rocker. Later on, “Wasted” fills the runaway train slot in the album’s final act, akin to “Baby Missiles” and “Burning.” Really, the only gripe I could come up with about this passage of the album is that “Change,” while solid, is sort of an archetypal Drugs song at this point — and it’s easy to imagine the album with “Ocean Of Darkness” having made the cut in its stead.

Sitting in the middle of that run, and at the core of the album literally and spiritually, is “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” And, holy shit where did that song come from? When I interviewed Granduciel last year, he mentioned he’d recently written the song and was excited about it. Now we can see why. The War On Drugs have had bangers before, obviously. But they’ve never had something quite like “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” Robbie Bennett provides a perfect drama-building synth riff, the band kicks into a rhythm that feels wistful but propulsive, Granduciel intones about long lost times. It’s patient in arriving at the first chorus, and when it does, it’s one of the most powerful and infectious pieces of music Granduciel has ever put together. There’s a hypnotic, loopy quality to it, the way his and Lucius’ voices wrap around each other, almost slightly out of time with each other. With all those elements swirling together, the whole thing becomes a rushing, romantic endorphin overload.

There’s at least one new element at play that helps elevate the song. Granduciel, with his voice usually settling into a Dylanesque reediness, has often let the instruments do the heavy cathartic lifting on the biggest Drugs songs. Think the instrumental choruses of “Come To The City” and “Red Eyes,” the guitar break of “Strangest Thing,” the celestial outros of “Under The Pressure” and “An Ocean In Between The Waves.” This band has never lacked hooks, and there are a lot of hooks on I Don’t Live Here Anymore. But now, Granduciel is up there belting more of them himself. “What I keep having to re-learn every record… is how to be a singer,” he told Pitchfork. “But once I pushed it, or sang an octave up, that really helped the song explode. When I noticed that, I was like, ‘I have to push the song.’” His realization was spot-on, and it’s exactly what makes songs like “I Don’t Wanna Wait” and “Old Skin” so stunning. And it’s very much what makes “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” so unshakeable, so moving. It just might be the best song this band has ever recorded.

There’s something else new about I Don’t Live Here Anymore: Granduciel is more dialed-in and focused as a lyricist than he’s ever been. Through much of the War On Drugs’ existence, Granduciel’s favored placeholder images, like the road and darkness and trains. For a while, that felt like part of the project: exhuming classic signifiers, and imbuing them with some new otherworldly quality. That’s still present on I Don’t Live Here Anymore, though overall Granduciel is writing sharper and more specific words. Some are still imagistic, a starting point you can fill with your own meaning before the music takes it home; that, in his own words, has often been his intent. But at the same time, he’s writing a Springsteen-worthy couplet like “Is life just dying in slow motion/ Or growing stronger every day.” Even the seemingly strange or vague lines are more evocative, like “I was born in a pyramid/ By an old interstate.”

In interviews, one of the main narratives spun around I Don’t Live Here Anymore is that of Granduciel becoming a father. Having a child does seem to have altered him as a writer. In “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes,” he mulls over his own aging father and what is passed down to the next generation. In “Old Skin,” he reflects on having worked to chase an unidentified dream of his father’s, before it faded away. There’s an overarching sense of mortality, experiencing the miracle of parenthood mingling with an increasingly severe sense of time’s passage. Many of I Don’t Live Here Anymore’s songs seem to contemplate years gone by, what has disappeared or is disappearing. They’re building up his block into something unrecognizable in “Living Proof” and maybe he’s been gone too long, but he’ll keep moving; he lingers on nostalgia for a warm moment at a Bob Dylan concert in the title track.

In a recent New York Times interview, Granduciel spoke about writing from a place of melancholy, that he’s still learning how to be happy. When A Deeper Understanding was coming out, Granduciel described it as having a “real sickness sound.” But despite positive life changes like having a child and his band taking off, Granduciel seems to write from a more noticeably dark place on I Don’t Live Here Anymore. At the very least, there is yearning strung throughout much of its songs — “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” “Victim,” and “Wasted” all try to reach back out to a lover across some new distance. Between losing faith in “Harmonia’s Dream” and the passing storms of closer “Occasional Rain,” you could interpret the album as wrangling with some kind of middle-aged and/or romantic turmoil. Last month, a tabloid story claimed that Granduciel and his partner Krysten Ritter had split; he denied it in the Times interview. Regardless of how you want to read into any of that, I Don’t Live Here Anymore feels like an album checkered by something — if not explicit loss, then the feeling of something very nearly slipping through your fingers. Its title, after all, is one of moving on — present tense reflecting on only recent past tense.

Aside from bestowing one song its title, the word “change” appears constantly across I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Mostly, from “Change” to “I Don’t Wanna Wait” to “Victim,” it’s Granduciel singing that he doesn’t want to or can’t change, and then on “Old Skin” he’s saying “Let’s suffer through the change.” Even in the album’s most transporting moments, the edges are haunted — that “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” chorus always ending with the conclusion that we all walk through this darkness on our own.

Yet the album seems to strive for a more optimistic end destination. Hints of life experiences both heavy and inspiring intertwine throughout, then the music seems to lift it up into something hopeful, transformative. Maybe those moments are being parsed, maybe they’re being purged. But at almost every turn, whatever ache is depicted lyrically is answered by music that is triumphant. In its final moments, “Occasional Rain” concludes the album with another thought to just keep moving: Storms come and go, but some foundations linger and carry you forward. So many of these songs sound like the sun finally rising on a new day and, ultimately, I Don’t Live Here Anymore becomes the most affirming album in this band’s catalog.

At this point, the War On Drugs have not made a bad album. You could probably find fans who would argue for each and every one of them as their favorite: some contrarian out there preferring the washed-out rough draft of Wagonwheel Blues, those in thrall of Slave Ambient’s kaleidoscopic loops, everyone who got onboard with the watercolor and grain of Lost In The Dream, those who saw A Deeper Understanding as a peak and culmination. I will tell you where I’m at: I often held that soft spot for Slave Ambient, but Lost In The Dream became an incredibly important album to me. I respected A Deeper Understanding and mostly regarded it as Granduciel’s best work front to back, even if I couldn’t find a way to engage with it on the same level myself. I’ve been a fan of this band a long time, and they have made some of my favorite new music of my lifetime. And from where I’m standing right now, having carried I Don’t Live Here Anymore with me — for months, across I don’t know how many states and thousands of miles on the road — it sounds like their best album to me. It’s the one I was hoping they would make after A Deeper Understanding, but it’s also in many ways the album they always sounded like they could and should be building towards. Even if I Don’t Live Here Anymore dwells on things fraying, for the War On Drugs it’s the sound of 10-plus years cohering, of everything coming together.

I Don’t Live Here Anymore is out 10/29 via Atlantic.

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