With the tap of a snare and a wheeze of harmonica on Wagonwheel Blues opener “Arms Like Boulders,” Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs introduced themselves as soulful roots-rock iconoclasts. At the core of their sound, the band is a hearty and ragged rock ‘n’ roll outfit, but one that’s been dunked in the odd layer of effects and ambience, which has often resulted in simultaneous comparisons to both Sonic Youth and Bob Dylan. Despite the band’s looser, more psychedelic take on Americana, however, their trippier indulgences largely seemed a secondary factor, with their use of feedback and effects playing a supporting role to their arena-sized anthems. Yet on last year’s Future Weather EP, the band revealed a much stronger emphasis on texture and sonic space, with highlight “Baby Missiles” in particular standing as one of their hugest songs to date.
The band’s pursuit of richer textures and dreamier soundscapes has escalated even further on Slave Ambient, the band’s second album for Secretly Canadian. That “Ambient” is actually part of the album’s title gives a certain indication into their artistic aims this time around. Frontman Adam Granduciel’s songwriting still centers on strong, soaring melodies, but ones that grow ever more intriguing and hypnotic via sheets of sonic embellishment. More than ever, the casual mentions of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth in reference to the band’s production hold a great deal of weight.
On a track like “Baby Missiles,” which reappears here in slightly altered form, the band approaches the towering, chaotic atmosphere of Daydream Nation and Loveless. Yet, the predominant mood on Slave Ambient is one of blissful melancholy. Everything is beautiful and dreamlike, suspending the listener in a kind of beautifully surreal state. Yet within that hallucinogenic state there’s more than a twinge of sadness. In opening track “Best Night,” for instance, the band crafts one of their most gently breathtaking compositions via aqueous effects and hypnotic, minor-key melodies, grounded by Granduciel’s laments, “I feel that I’ve been cursed/ I’ve been drowned and reimbursed.” The sheer beauty of it all keeps the song from being a total bummer, but there’s more than a little pain and regret within its sonic euphoria, catalyzed as catharsis rather than misery in need of company.
The War on Drugs underwent a series of lineup changes in the lead-up to Slave Ambient‘s release, most notably the departure of guitarist Kurt Vile to pursue a solo career. And while Slave Ambient doesn’t feature Vile, it’s in some ways a sonic cousin to his latest, Smoke Ring For My Halo. Slave Ambient primarily differs in that it’s a much bigger album, with seemingly simple tracks like the outstanding, lonesome-hearted “Brothers” made up of numerous, mesmerizing layers, resulting in one of the weirdest and most curiously charming arena rock albums to emerge in recent years. Even a more straightforward rock number like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” takes as many cues from the repetition-heavy grooves of Neu! as it does from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And the invigorating “Come to the City” throbs like Spiritualized fronted by Bruce Springsteen, right down to Granduciel’s falsetto whoops.
Slave Ambient offers both heartsick anthems and heavily layered production, though never at the expense of one another. The band creates perfect synergy, recontextualizing two tried-and-true ideas into a unique sonic experience that’s as satisfying as it is immersive. The ear candy alone is a feat in itself, but The War on Drugs inject that with a palpable emotional gravity that makes this not just an extraordinarily well-dressed album, but a highly affecting one as well.
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