Anyone actively looking for flaws in Lost In The Dream, the exquisite new album from The War On Drugs, is quite frankly listening to the album wrong. And at any rate, they simply won’t find any, no matter how hard they search. Any pressure or expectations that Adam Granduciel and his cohorts felt trying to follow up their stellar 2011 breakthrough, Slave Ambient, are emphatically shrugged off on the dynamic opening track – fittingly titled “Under The Pressure” – as the sprawling elegance of these expansive, spellbinding numbers give the album a weightless charm that is never once bogged down by modern concerns or overly ambitious sonic missteps.
There’s a casual familiarity that permeates the leisurely but joyous material, which never strives too hard to be perfect or rushes too fast to get to where it’s going. But the record coalesces elegantly nonetheless, forming a flawless, ethereal artistic statement by a band who has clearly refined and perfected their craft.
There is a dreamy buoyancy to the lead-off track, “Under The Pressure,” which establishes a pensive tone and tempo that continues throughout the rest of the record. Granduciel tackles some personal heartbreaks and anxieties within his contemplative, abstract lyrics. “When it all breaks down, and we’re runaways/Standing in the wake of our pain/And we stare straight into nothing/But call it all the same,” he sings reflectively, eloquently capturing the tentative freedom that arrives after you put a bad situation behind you, but are still so strongly rooted in the familiar habits of your past that it’s impossible to move forward just yet.
But Granduciel’s vocals frequently seem to be arriving on a breeze through a half-opened window, giving the songs additional hazy textures while only providing a partial story of what inspired them. While the intoxicating, guitar-fueled arrangements consistently give the numbers an airy, carefree quality that balances well with the searching, evocative nature of Adam’s vocals. Lead single “Red Eyes” is a vibrant triumph, awash in spiraling keyboards and scorching guitar solos, as the simmering sentiments of the track erupt alongside Granduciel’s impassioned “Whoo!” two minutes in. He and the band are clearly in no hurry to reveal the true heart of any of these grandiose numbers, but when those dynamic moments finally hit, it’s impossible not to get swept away in those potent, poignant waves.
The mercurial blues of “Suffering” slows the tempo down, but ratchets up the raw emotions revealed. Granduciel shares how staying too long in a relationship that isn’t working is sometimes even more lonely than being alone. “Why be here when we’re both going to fake it,” he asks, as the solemn arrangement augments that feeling of desperate isolation, building to the doleful strains of a saxophone that rings out from the shadows. But even while The War on Drugs are clearly making plenty of magic on this album, doubts still inevitably creep in to the creative process. “I’m in my finest hour/Can I be more than just a fool?”, Granduciel questions on the slow-burning jam, “An Ocean In Between The Waves.”
But there is nothing foolish to be found in sweeping, plaintive numbers like “Disappearing,” which is guided along by a rhythmic electronic beat and an aching harmonica strain that perfectly compliments Granduciel’s muted, desolated guitar solo. And, as boldly ambitious as these songs are (with half the tracks clocking in over six minutes), they never once lose their way, and linger redolently in the air long after they have faded out.
The second half gets underway with the upbeat, acoustic stomp of “Eyes To The Wind,” which has echoes of both Bob Dylan and Bob Seger threaded throughout the piano-laden arrangement and Adam’s countrified vocal delivery. “As you set your eyes to the wind/And you see me float away again/Having lost it all, my friend/Just a bit run down here, at the moment/I’m all alone here, living in darkness,” he sings, leading you to believe that the anguish of the subject has finally won out and hope is indeed lost. But it’s Granduciel’s exultant call of “All right!” that lets you know that there is indeed light at the end of this dark, desolate tunnel, and the luxurious solo that leads the song home only solidifies that feeling of optimism that arrives like a new day.
“The Haunting Idle” is a minimalist instrumental excursion, reminiscent of the haunting explorations of late period Sonic Youth. It forms a fluid segue into the rich, Bruce Springsteen-esque charms of “Burning,” one of the standouts on an album packed with high water marks. “Wide awake, I rearrange the way I listen in the dark/Dreaming of starting up again,” Granduciel sings restlessly, as the swinging, keys-laden number catches a jubilant groove and effortlessly cruises to a sprightly finish. The rueful title track arrives near the end of the album, and the harmonica-drenched number is a sentimental look back at times that may never be perfect again, if they ever even were. But compared to the other loosely focused, vivid numbers that fill the album, “Lost In The Dream” has an unfinished, half-formed quality to it, as if Granduciel has more in store for the song that gave the album its illusory name.
“In Reverse” begins like a meditative tone poem, before the closing cut finds a graceful spark and the grand parade that Granduciel sings passionately of finally arrives in all its faded glory. It’s an elegant way to end an album that has a lot of hard miles and ages of emotions packed within its sprawling songs. Lost In The Dream implies being absorbed in a directionless reverie, but there is nothing confused or unfocused about these engrossing new numbers. The War On Drugs confidently takes the listener on a guided and graphic tour of the down and out lives of those on the dark side of town, yet the promise of dawn’s gradual arrival suggests that the sun hasn’t set on us all quite yet.