Adam Granduciel obsesses over the journey. His songs depict a nomadic life that exalts heading off into the unknown. What’s wonderful about the latest effort by his band, The War on Drugs, is its attempt to shed the undying romanticism with the road.
Ditching the Americana-label for a gazier, psychedelic drone, Slave Ambient suggests that not every mile is filled with breathtakingly beautiful scenery. The result is long stretches where signs counting down the miles to Joplin, Mo. are much-anticipated milestones. And when there’s nothing to see, all you can do is enjoy the ride.
That’s not to say Slave Ambient is a dreary album. There are major landmarks along the way. For one, check “Baby Missiles,” an honest, working-man’s epic that wouldn’t sound out of place on a ‘70s Bruce Springsteen record if it weren’t for the synthesizer—it’s more akin to Win Butler’s take on the Boss. Granduciel’s fast-paced vocal cadence and the drummer’s chugging rhythm makes the singer sound like he’s conducting a train full of well-worn passengers.
The War On Drugs – “Baby Missles”
The Philadelphian quartet’s most apparent change has been their sonic expansion from their debut, 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and last year’s EP Future Weathers. Here, they experiment with looping synthesizers that lie underneath the songs, establishing an unstable foundation that could collapse at any moment. This is an ambitious record that deserves to be examined on headphones, and also requires being blasted with the windows rolled down, going 75 on some gravel country road in Kentucky.
The War on Drugs hasn’t completely left their roots in the dust, however. They still yearn for places to go and ponder on how to get there–hint: this almost always involves a train–and Granduciel continues to sneer like a young Bob Dylan. Also, eschewing the new psych-rock hue on closer “Black Water Falls,” it’s the one track that resembles Wagonwheel Blues.
The War On Drugs – “Black Water Falls”
But Granduciel’s work in Kurt Vile’s backing band, the Violators, very much bleeds into Slave Ambient. (Actually, Vile helped co-found The War on Drugs in 2005 and played with them before his own act broke in 2009.) The obvious link here is Vile’s druggy “Freak Train.” The Childish Prodigy track contains a drum beat that marches forward, features his bedraggled snarl and, oh yeah, it involves a train: all key staples of Slave Ambient.
“I’m a thousand miles behind/With a million more to climb,” Granduciel sings on opening track, “Best Night,” maybe best describing his musical intentions. As much as it’s indebted to the sounds of Dylan and Springsteen and is influenced by his time with the Violators, Slave Ambient rarely comes off as overtly nostalgic or derivative. Indeed, it’s forward looking. The wash of synthesizers that linger underneath “Come to the City,” for example, gives the track an otherworldly appeal.
The War On Drugs – “Come To The City”
Perhaps its most endearing quality, however, is that Slave Ambient doesn’t employ any of the preciousness that runs rampant in many Americana acts. This isn’t schmaltzy remorse music and you won’t find any heart-felt harmonies here. These dudes have a permanent blackness of grease stained on their hands.
Kevin Mueller is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee, Wis. He writes about music and culture for The A.V. Club; the city’s alt-weekly, The Shepherd Express; and the daily online magazine Third Coast Digest. He graduated from Marquette University in 2009 with a journalism degree.