Album of the week : Lost In The Dream - The War on Drugs

When Philadelphia-based purveyors of stripped-down, haunted rock perfection The War on Drugs came on the scene with their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, their sound perked up the ears of a new generation of soul searchers looking for a soundtrack. Summoning up the patron saints of FM radio rock, the band was constantly framed as an update to the wild-eyed sermons of Dylan and Springsteen or the summer-night abandon that Tom Petty perfected, all filtered through walls of decidedly indie guitar noise. Founding member Kurt Vile left the band to pursue his blooming solo path by the time of 2011′s Slave Ambient, leaving key songwriter Adam Granduciel running the show completely for that album’s well-received set of songs and heightened production. Third album Lost In The Dream represents the most fully realised statement from the group thus far, with all ten songs gelling together with a sense of purpose and understated brilliance the band came close to before, but deliver in full here

There’s a dreamy buoyancy to the opening track, ‘Under The Pressure’, which establishes a pensive tone and tempo that continues throughout the rest of the record. Granduciel tackles some personal heartbreaks and anxieties within his contemplative, abstract lyrics. “When it all breaks down, and we’re runaways/Standing in the wake of our pain/And we stare straight into nothing/But call it all the same,” he sings reflectively, eloquently capturing the tentative freedom that arrives after you put a bad situation behind you, but are still so strongly rooted in the familiar habits of your past that it’s impossible to move forward just yet

Lead single ‘Red Eyes’ is a vibrant triumph, awash in spiraling keyboards and scorching guitar solos, as the simmering sentiments of the track erupt alongside Granduciel’s impassioned “Whoo!” two minutes in. He and the band are clearly in no hurry to reveal the true heart of any of these grandiose numbers, but when those dynamic moments finally hit, it’s impossible not to get swept away in those potent, poignant waves

The mercurial blues of ‘Suffering’ slows the tempo down, but ratchets up the raw emotions revealed. Granduciel shares how staying too long in a relationship that isn’t working is sometimes even more lonely than being alone. “Why be here when we’re both going to fake it,” he asks, as the solemn arrangement augments that feeling of desperate isolation, building to the doleful strains of a saxophone that rings out from the shadows. But even while The War on Drugs are clearly making plenty of magic on this album, doubts still inevitably creep in to the creative process. “I’m in my finest hour/Can I be more than just a fool?” Granduciel questions on the slow-burning jam, ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’

There’s nothing foolish to be found in sweeping, plaintive numbers like ‘Disappearing’, which is guided along by a rhythmic electronic beat and an aching harmonica strain that perfectly compliments Granduciel’s muted, desolated guitar solo. And, as boldly ambitious as these songs are (with half the tracks clocking in over six minutes), they never once lose their way, and linger redolently in the air long after they have faded out

The second half gets underway with the upbeat, acoustic stomp of ‘Eyes To The Wind’, which has echoes of both Bob Dylan and Bob Seger threaded throughout the piano-laden arrangement and Adam’s countrified vocal delivery. “As you set your eyes to the wind/And you see me float away again/Having lost it all, my friend/Just a bit run down here, at the moment/I’m all alone here, living in darkness,” he sings, leading you to believe that the anguish of the subject has finally won out and hope is indeed lost. But it’s Granduciel’s exultant call of “All right!” that lets you know that there is indeed light at the end of this dark, desolate tunnel, and the luxurious solo that leads the song home only solidifies that feeling of optimism that arrives like a new day

‘The Haunting Idle’ is a minimalist instrumental excursion, reminiscent of the haunting explorations of late period Sonic Youth. It forms a fluid segue into the rich, Bruce Springsteen-esque charms of ‘Burning’, one of the standouts on an album packed with high water marks. “Wide awake, I rearrange the way I listen in the dark/Dreaming of starting up again,” Granduciel sings restlessly, as the swinging, keys-laden number catches a jubilant groove and effortlessly cruises to a sprightly finish. The rueful title track arrives near the end of the album, and the harmonica-drenched number is a sentimental look back at times that may never be perfect again, if they ever even were. But compared to the other loosely focused, vivid numbers that fill the album, ‘Lost In The Dream’ has an unfinished, half-formed quality to it, as if Granduciel has more in store for the song that gave the album its illusory name

‘In Reverse’ begins like a meditative tone poem, before the closing track finds a graceful spark and the grand parade that Granduciel sings passionately of finally arrives in all its faded glory. It’s an elegant way to end an album that has a lot of hard miles and ages of emotions packed within its sprawling songs

Lost in the Dream is an elegant, triumphant album and perhaps the pinnacle of the ambient Americana sound Granduciel and Kurt Vile invented with Wagonwheel Blues and Vile’s Constant Hitmaker, respectively. It’s a near flawless collection of dreamy vibes, shifting moods, and movement, and stands easily as Granduciel’s finest hour so far

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