Album Review: I Don't Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs
Excellent, Based on 9 Critics
Under The Radar - 85 Based on rating 8.5/10
To experience the past as a present reality is a core human reality. We hold on to someone long gone, feel the pain of lost time in our chest, bask in the euphoria of the good days. But getting lost in the dreams of yesterday is a dangerous game. We can forget to let our memories aid us in our journey forward and instead become stagnant, always looking backward.
The songs of the War on Drugs exist in a world between knuckle tattoos: love, hurt; home, away; dark, lght. They usually begin in medias res, with our hero, the tressy and lovelorn Adam Granduciel, wandering the empty plains of grief with a guitar strapped to his back. He's down bad; he's rudderless; he's desperately trying to find his way out of the rain or pain or chains.
The War on Drugs reborn and simplified, but basically just as good.
I Don't Live Here Anymore is in many ways an album about transformation. In the time since we last heard Granduciel (2017's A Deeper Understanding), Adam became a father and endured the pandemic - two life-altering events. It's no wonder then that his band's fifth full-length LP sounds just a little bit different than what we're used to hearing from the Philadelphia rock sextet.
Why is it their worst? Their bloody-nosed heartland rock has never been closer - sonically, at least - to The Killers , and has certainly never been closer to peak-era Bryan Adams, to the point that many of the songs here (if Granduciel's voice were removed) are virtually indistinguishable from many of their peers, influences and contemporaries. The bad thing about this is that it virtually strips them of any and all identifiable features that made their work so endearing in the first place. Granduciel is a fantastic songwriter, but the pathetic fallacy of his rainy production always served the albums well.
It's always been clear that The War on Drugs are excellent at one specific thing: sounding big as hell. Throughout the years, Adam Granduciel and the gang have floated on the power of cavernous, gorgeously-framed heartland rock. With this band, a drum fill or careening synth riff will always matter far more than any lyrical or thematic material. That isn't a criticism either: The War on Drugs are the best at what they do for a reason, proving that the sonic architecture of a song is just as important as making a point or sharing something poetic.
The War on Drugs was always essentially a solo project -- the product of songwriter Adam Granduciel holing up in a studio, playing most of the instruments himself and, as he said back in 2014, "going off the rails a little bit in my own head. "
But on I Don't Live Here Anymore, Granduciel sounds like he has emerged from from isolation and is ready to wrap his arms around the world. Instead of hunkering down by himself, Granduciel demoed these songs with members of his live band, bouncing between multiple studios with collaborator Shawn Everett (who has been promoted to co-producer since mixing 2017's A Deeper Understanding).
After five albums, it appears that Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs have finally refined and perfected their sound. Ever since the release of their debut album Wagonwheel Blues, Adam Granduciel’s band have always mixed classic rock tropes with some more droney, shoegazing elements. As the years have gone by, it’s the classic rock that’s come to the fore, and on I Don’t Live Here Anymore, Granduciel has gone full-on Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen.
The dichotomy at the heart of The War On Drugs' sonic world - the classicism of the songwriting paired with the diligent embellishment of 21st century studio techniques - has been the elevating factor in an unlikely success story. It's hard to advance to the arena-playing, festival-headlining, Grammy-winning rock canon without the former; yet subtract band leader Adam Granduciel's scrupulous studio obsessiveness, and chances are that MOR rock that takes as much from Dire Straits as Bob Dylan might not have landed so well with those of more discerning tastes.
As it is, over four albums, the Philadelphia-based outfit have pulled off a seemingly improbable trick: taking well-worn (and often uncool) influences and conjuring something fresh.
When it comes to wearing your influences on your sleeve, Adam Granduciel is a master. The songwriter's clear worship of Dylan and Springsteen can be a distraction for new listeners. His music is a beautiful jigsaw made of familiar pieces, so expertly weaved together you can't refuse its charm. Dylan's wistful wisdom charged by The Boss' driving sense of rhythm all served with a dash of good old indie melancholia.