The War on Drugs are an indie-rock group hailing from Philadelphia. They were founded by Adam Granduciel (vocals, guitar) and Kurt Vile (guitar), though the latter would soon depart the band to pursue his solo musical ventures. Their sound fits perfectly with an open sprawling landscape and inescapable feelings of travel. Firmly rooted in the Americana music tradition championed by Tom Petty and so many others, The War Drugs expertly adds elements of neo-psychedelia and shoegaze to transform their songs into churning engines of movement and emotion. Below, I rank their four studio albums to date and provide brief descriptions of each.
4. Wagonwheel Blues
Year Released: 2008
Length: 9 Songs, 43 Minutes
Album Highlight: Taking the Farm
Placing Wagonwheel Blues in the last spot of this list did not happen without some trepidation. The band’s debut record is a great introduction to their sound, even if the project isn’t as memorable as what would come from the band’s later output. The two opening tracks, “Arms Like Boulders” and “Taking the Farm” display Granduciel’s sharp, if often mystifying, lyrical ability. Listen hard enough and you can parce out depictions of landscape beauty right alongside metaphors about the future perfect tense.
Wagonwheel Blues establishes a sense of motion through both its instrumental interludes and more traditional song structures. A dreamy shoegaze-laden build opens “There Is No Urgency” and is a pointed reminder that while The War on Drugs will always be indebted to Americana influences like Dylan and Springsteen, they do have a unique sound to contribute to the genre. This album is more raw and unpolished than any later release but still remains a worthwhile listen.
3. Slave Ambient
Year Released: 2011
Length: 12 Songs, 47 Minutes
Album Highlight: Baby Missiles
The War on Drugs sophomore effort would also be the last one to feature contributions from founding member Kurt Vile. His contributions are minimal, as his guitarwork only appears on tracks “Best Night” and “It’s Your Destiny”, but even so the band matures in his absence. As the record’s title implies, there is a more ambient lean to this project and in contrast to Wagonwheel Blues the compositions are generally richer in sonic texture and more subdued in tone.
As a holistic album, Slave Ambient is cohesive in a manner eluding its predecessor. The Americana roadtrip theme is still present, but carefully filtered through both Granduciel’s racing thoughts and more hazy instrumental interludes. Closing track “Black Water Falls” is a tender song that features more stripped down production and should remind listeners of the band’s first LP. Even so, the band are looking to the future more than the past.
2. A Deeper Understanding
Year Released: 2017
Length: 10 Songs, 66 Minutes
Album Highlight: Holding On
The War on Drugs most recent release also finds them at their largest and most grand. While the band had long been creating wide sweeping epics, this album features an even more expansive sound for Granduciel to fill with his earnest vocals and swirling guitars how he sees fit. This big-band sound is likely due to the change in labels from Secretly Canadian to Atlantic. The guitarwork across the album serves so many purposes, many times injecting songs with a primal uplifting feeling that suggests a look to a better future. This is certainly the effect had during the closing guitar solo on second track “Pain”.
Meanwhile, “Holding On” displays the catchier sensibilities that The War on Drugs can exercise when they decide to take a break from complete collages of sound. Carried over from the band’s preceding album Lost In The Dream, there remains a studio sheen and dreamy ambiance guiding the tone of the album which The War on Drugs continue to mine for gold.
2. Lost In The Dream
Year Released: 2014
Length: 10 Songs, 60 Minutes
Album Highlight: Suffering
Lost In The Dream was rumored to be rewritten a handful of times by Granduciel across two years he spent in a lonely depressed haze amid a split with his long-term partner. This record is his attempt to salvage the scattered pieces of the American dream in the wake of personal crisis. While that might sound messy, the sonic texture of this project is decisively more polished and glossy than any War on Drugs album to precede it. A shiny gleam seems to drip off the guitars which, true to form, still have the tendency to wind and cascade around other instruments as they slowly but surely turn into fleshed out compositions.
The lyrics across this LP are also noticeably more direct like on “Eyes To The Wind” where Adam confesses “I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t mind/Leave it hanging on my mind/Lost inside my head/Is this the way I’ll be denied again?”. “Suffering” is a tremendous slow burn and a good candidate for Granduciel’s most vulnerable song to date. The guitar solo across the back half of the track moans and cries in a way reminiscent of George Harrision’s most emotional work. Lost In The Dream remains a high water mark for The War on Drugs.