At times, listening to The War on Drugs is like attending a motivational speech while on drugs. You’re lost in the fog for a bit, carried off by churning guitars, synths, and hypnotic drums, and then you register a single line—“Love’s the key to the things that we see,” “Throw the bad away and keep your mind against it,” “Yeah, be the writer of your own story,” “I’m a thousand miles behind / With a million more to climb.” The first time you hear these songs, at least, lines emerge out of context, encouraging you to keep on moving through the dark, amid that swirling haze, practically begging to be dissolved by a solitary “Woo!”
As with previous records, many of the lyrics on The War on Drugs’ new album I Don’t Live Here Anymore are characteristically vague—the kind of lines that can be taken from their original context, the kind onto which listeners can impose their own anxieties, dreams, spiritual defeats. However, there are a few lines on I Don’t Live Here Anymore that bear a certain specificity which takes me back to songs like “Arms Like Boulders” off the group’s first record.
On the title track, when Granduciel sings about seeing Bob Dylan live and dancing to “Desolation Row” (of all songs), it feels like a particular memory. We may have similar ones, but we weren’t there with him. By contrast, later in the song, when Granduciel sings, “We’re all just walkin’ through this darkness on our own,” it is an inclusive we, and we’re back in communal Drugs territory. Lyrically, it’s the kind of thing that needs a riff that can fill stadiums to justify it, and the band doesn’t hold back, as if to say, “We’re not embarrassed to sing at the top of our lungs, nor should you be.” What can I say? When you yoke a platitude to the right riff it feels profound.
The quieter moments on this album are every bit as memorable, and they make the giddy highs of the title track, the muscular guitars on “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” and the synth stabs on “Victim” still more thrilling. The stirring ballad “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes” serves as a necessary sonic counterpoint to the title track, and I don’t remember anything as sparse on recent records as the simple strummed guitar, piano chords, stray drums, and vocals with which “Living Proof” opens. Of course, “Living Proof” builds in typical Drugs fashion, and the initial sparseness only makes it all the more affecting when Granduciel leads us to the solo, singing, “I’m rising / And I’m damaged.” Even then, it’s an unhurried solo, one in which you can feel the spaces in between the notes.
As with any The War on Drugs record, the production is immaculate. (To borrow a phrase from former The War on Drugs member Kurt Vile from his great song “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” I’m inclined to call it “Springsteen pristine.”) But there is—if not looseness—some added pliability this time around compared to the meticulousness of Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding. Lost in the Dream may still represent Drugs’ absolute peak, but I’d be disappointed if they didn’t make at least a few tweaks to the formula as they moved along. While I Don’t Live Here Anymore might not have the same beautiful, suffocating atmosphere of Lost in the Dream, the added room to breathe on this record is one of its strengths.
For one, it lifts any and all fog that might have hung about the record’s closing line: “It’s only
some occasional rain.” Granduciel and company know it’s easy to be cynical, to lose faith, but they rarely bring up despair without offering some counter in the following line. They’re rising, they’re damaged; they’re wondering if life is death in slow motion or getting stronger every day; they’re singing about the gray clouds but also the light on the other side. They’re not motivational speakers by any stretch of the imagination, but they are in the business of hope.