"The beginning is so beautiful, if you don't do it right, then fuck it," War On Drugs front man Adam Granduciel said on Thursday night at Bowery Ballroom before launching into the title track from his band's incredible third album, Lost In The Dream. This was one of three sold-out NYC shows (tickets on StubHub were up to $80 the day before the show) for the Philly-based band this week, and a veritable coronation for a band who has just released one of the best rock albums of the past couple years. And the group was soaking it in all night, popping champagne, dismissing the theater of encores, and joking around about argyle sweaters: "You're the most interactive crowd we've ever had," a joyous Granduciel said at one point.
War On Drugs, and Granduciel (who writes/records their songs mostly on his own) in particular, have been slathered in critical adoration lately, which could give anyone a big head—but despite the portentousness of the first quote above, War On Drugs weren't precious and humorless about their sound.
Instead, the six musicians in the touring group played a muscular and vivid 15 song set, cresting on a wave of mutual appreciation over an hour and a half show. There's no doubt in my mind that the next time they're in NYC, they'll have graduated to bigger venues (likely Webster Hall, maybe Terminal 5). [Note: there isn't much good video from the NYC shows, but there are very good clips from a show earlier this week in Philly, so you can get a decent idea of what they're like live from those.]
On their latest and by far most addictive record, War On Drugs has embraced patience in their songwriting and space in the studio (akin to My Morning Jacket on Z), stretching songs out with droney outros and multiple solo-enhanced guitar climaxes. At their core, they're a melange of classic rock and '80s influences smushed together: when I describe them to friends, I tell them to imagine if Dinosaur Jr. were obsessed with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and produced by Daniel Lanois. This mix of classic and '80s rock is encoded in their DNA, from the "Dancing In The Dark"-synths in "Burning" to the Phil Collins-esque keyboard tones peppered throughout the record. On "Suffering," it's easy to picture what the music video might look like, with Granduciel in a fedora sitting in some smoke-drenched bar, mooning over his lost love, circa 1983. Appropriately, all his songs are filled with runaways, drifters and dreamers.
Adding to the deja vu: Granduciel, who looks like a mix of Russell Brand and young Eddie Vedder, sounds like he learned everything about singing from binging on '80s Dylan records (especially the slow ones). There are a few exceptions to this, like the moments when he sounds like he was born to sing Don Henley's "Boys of Summer."
Despite its cadre of influences, the record is thoroughly modern-sounding and devoid of the glaring production woes of the '80s. It's mostly the work of Granduciel slaving away in his studio, obsessively recording and re-recording every note. Live, the band loosens up considerably: "Under The Pressure," freed from its overly processed drums, was one of the biggest songs of the evening, an addictive guitar showcase married to a Motorik groove. Few indie rockers embrace heroic guitar solos and long instrumental passages like War On Drugs do (note: these aren't really jams, rather thoroughly composed parts), but with tunes like "Pressure" or the steadily escalating "As Ocean In Between The Waves," they hit that sweet spot before it lapses into indulgence.
Other highlights included the Springsteen-nodding "Red Eyes" (special shout out to their saxophonist/horn player, who was able to add massive amounts of personality to their sound without crowding the mix all night), the propulsive "Baby Missiles," and the gorgeous "Eyes To The Wind," which exists in a world in which Dylan brought his best '80s tunes to the Traveling Wilburys. The band were in such good spirits, they broke out a cover of John Lennon's "Mind Games," and concluded the evening sometime close to 1 a.m. with "Arms Like Boulders," the first song from their first record.
War On Drugs' ability to synthesize their influences into something new and exciting is right there in the chorus from "In Reverse," which happens to be the last song on Lost In The Dream: "When we're livin' in the moment and losing our grasp/ making it last with the grand parade in our past." Things are only going to get grander from here for War On Drugs.