The War On Drugs - Lost in the Dream | Album Review | By Volume

The kid that went down isn't dead; he just can't find his phone. The Hold Steady - Almost Everything
lost in the dream

The War On Drugs

Lost in the Dream

Sprawling, stretching, shimmering.

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Author: on March 19, 2014
Secretly Canadian

Most of the time, track lengths are not really something worth noting beyond a passing comment, but when I opened the new War on Drugs album, Lost in the Dream, this fairly miniscule factoid was initially the most striking feature; half of the album’s ten songs stretched past the six minute mark. Only one track on the band’s previous LP, Slave Ambient, waded into this extended territory. Paired with that album title, these long-form songs could go one of two ways (or, an infinite number of ways, whatever…shut up); Lost in the Dream could be a mess of noodling, rambling jam-band bullshit, or it could be a wonderfully cohesive and fluid album that sifts through its run times with just the right amount of lazing lilt. Almost immediately, Built to Spill’s leap from the pop-friendly slices of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love to the monumental Perfect from Now On came to mind: while the bands operate on different rungs of the same referential spectrum, one leaning toward the guitar-centric rock while the other toward a folksier avenue, both lens their idiosyncrasies through classic rock channels. And even though these two bands find different comforts in the past, they share a similar confidence in equipping the sprawl.

While Slave Ambient was pleasant and attractive, beyond one or two tracks (particularly the closer “Blackwater,” which gives many cues to Lost in the Dream) it lacked a bit of staying power. The band’s mission was pretty clear from the get go: take the conventions of classic rock and filter them to the hilt through equalizers and reverb heavy guitars. Things shimmered, drones were had, but too often the production techniques overshadowed, or compensated for, a lack of song craft. Nonetheless, their previous work had promise, perhaps the most damaging word for any band looking to follow up a breakthrough record. Luckily, in embracing the roomier compositional space on Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs have remedied the most glaring flaws of their earlier effort. While the song lengths stretch out, the writing is tighter. Partly this means the band shows a better understanding of how to cast themselves into the roles of others—Adam Granduciel and company have a wonderful knack for implementing their own sonic touches onto well-worn milestones. While I promise to forthwith refrain from any more obvious games of name-that-influence, the excellent “Eyes to the Wind” displays the very specific line of creativity that the band treads along; the song begins as an almost too earnest nod to Bob Seeger’s “Against the Wind,” with the open tuned guitar strumming and the steady pulse of the piano and drums, but the steady construction, layer upon layer, of sonic manipulation creates a fantastic climax without ever really upping the volume.

That’s the band’s greatest strength, it’s what was promised on Slave Ambient, and it’s what Lost in the Dream delivers time and again: a willingness to take even the most basic elements, like a two chord vamp, and test the morphological possibilities and limits of tone and texture. These are the idiosyncrasies that I was referring to earlier, these daring attempts to push the context out of simple historicist manipulation and into the realm of now. Tautologically, Lost in the Dream follows a particular pattern that plays with this idea of past and present while subverting expectations, if in subtle ways. The “ballad” of the album, “Suffering,” opens as a rather stifled drum beat featuring an innocuous vocal lead, but by the midway point the song really comes to life by adding saxophones, piano, and guitars to the mix. These guitars, however, don’t roar out of the void begging for an epic music video accompaniment replete with storming skies, a white tuxedo, and some dilapidated church; no, they bubble and hint at bursting without ever doing so, preferring to remain contemplative instead of audacious. The beautiful closer, “In Reverse,” pulls a similar trick, feigning a late song climax in favour of a tuneful change in melody that’s both unexpected and rewarding.

Lost in the Dream wavers continuously between the ostentatious and the subdued, and it’s a better album for the struggle. At a time when “roots rock” (or, stupidly, “urban roots”) manifests as the go-to genre of choice for particular twenty-somethings looking for more laid-back fare as opposed to whatever other endeavour they might pursue on a Saturday night, The War on Drugs both satisfy and subvert expectations, in equal measure. This is certainly relaxing stuff, but Lost in Dream is also willing to break the mold. If you’re expecting that to suggest the avant-garde, it doesn’t—The War on Drugs have no interest in stretching our intellectual listening habits to new and far off lands, but they are willing to test the waters of what makes us comfortable. What kind of dreams might we get lost in? Theirs is an answer that clearly turns toward the aesthetic placebo, drowning in the sounds of our culturally identified prettiness. Reverb abounds, as if filtered ready for some indie-flick soundtrack. Still, we must return to those song lengths, as the breathing room on the album questions how long we dream and how comfortable we are in getting lost in these places of loose, associative imagination. If immediately Lost in the Dream comes across as surface-level sheen, perhaps the first thing you should ask yourself is why The War on Drugs are so willing to give in to the sheen, and what it means to stretch the limits of such comforts.

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