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War on drugs album cover

Best Fit's Album of the Year 2014: Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs

01 December 2014, 10:00

On 25 November last year, I received an email – subject line: “I have an idea…”

What followed was a week-long flurry of activity, both online and off – excited web chatter, hushed phone calls and one rogue meeting in a Hoxton alley to trade CD-Rs – all in the name of one, very special secret. At the epicentre of our plot sat ten, plainly named, freshly completed tracks – only delivered to the label barely three weeks earlier – under the nearly-maudlin title of Lost in the Dream. With hindsight, it’s mildly comical to consider that we probably needn’t have concerned ourselves with being so covert. Twelve months ago, the topic of discussion meant something very different. “The War on Drugs” usually contained fewer capital letters.

At the end of that holiday weekend, I called Adam Granduciel (the nickname given to him by a school French teacher, as a mock-literal translation of his birth name, Granofsky), the man near solely responsible for the record in question – him, waiting in a Philadelphia parking lot for Vietnamese pho, and me wired on coffee to combat the difference in timezone. As we moved from earnest small talk towards the subject at hand, he reeled in short, sharp shock when I first mentioned I’d heard the record. “Oh, you have?”

His reaction, and the weight of that moment for him, makes a lot more sense in context. In that first conversation about the record, and in the many others since, the extent to which Lost in the Dream so utterly consumed Granduciel, both physically and mentally, has been well documented. The lull of the post-tour blues might be a trope well trodden by artists in interviews, but this was something far more severe. With no prior knowledge of the record’s backstory, the undiluted emotional outpour that followed – of Granduciel’s coming eye-to-eye with his own mortality, of the crippling, existential self-doubt that overtook his entire mental outlook, of the panic attacks and depression that became his neutral state, of the total loneliness that struck him returning to an empty house in his mid-thirties and contemplating what he had to show for it – was incredibly affecting. In his words, he was “a fucking mess”. His sentences arced and circled back on themselves, thoughts crashing into others, betraying the fact that for all the rich completeness of the record, he was by no means out the deep end. Talking about it for the first time was a pretty vivid experience for both of us.

It’s a story that’s been well told this year – not least by Ryan Leas and David Bevan – but there’s one quote that stands out for me, from the band’s bassist and second longest-standing member, Dave Hartley: “Whatever has been said, whatever will be said, and whatever becomes the mythology of the record is insufficient”. For all the objective re-evaluation of the record, it’s the subjective I, not why, that makes it so endlessly rewarding.

Granduciel made his name on a kind of perfectionism. If the heartland rock that’s the most obvious touchstone for his songwriting emerged at the confluence of straighter rock and roll with the conviction of contemporary blue-collar narratives, Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient enact a similar process of breathing new life into old words. What would be powerful, rousing traditionalism comes warped through endless, obsessive experimentalism – whirring analogue fuzz, pulsing motorik rhythms – songs that are utterly hypnotic in their texture and depth. Their effect is cumulative and slow burning, gently revealing their soft thrill. But this was a younger Granduciel, still enamoured with the romantic sense of the ‘great American journey’ – where the next town was only a bus away, and luggage consisted of your twenty favourite records and a box of hash brownies.

One kindred spirit on this journey was Kurt Vile, a fleeting member of the Drugs, and long-term companion of Granduciel. To think of two in comparison sheds a light on the latter’s mindset, though; when one of your closest personal and professional contemporaries is releasing videos of his adorable daughter dancing around the living room, living around the corner from a mural dedicated to his latest record, and having his hometown devote a day to his honour, their presence must cast a pretty long shadow.

But in Lost in the Dream is a graduation into a whole new league. On paper, Granduciel’s personal turmoil, need for perfection and his dedication to making something "transcendent" is a potentially volatile cocktail. His emotional situation meant the stakes were higher for this record than for any in record memory. When your art is the medium through which you’re grappling with such existential crises, how can any snare hit or guitar lick ever be good enough? The flipside of this creative tipping point, had the album not turned out to be the colossal beauty that it did, doesn’t bear much thinking about.

Thankfully, the end result is a record rendered in such rich detail that it makes anything else seem dull – like walking through a forest in the colourful height of autumn, and treading the same path in a stark winter. Its every nook seethes with charged vitality, every track’s minutiae glimmers with vivid colour, stretching Granduciel’s personal claustrophobia into a cavernous, airy expanse, but without a hint of pixellation. The overall effect evokes the feel of long, comforting pleasures – like sinking into a warm bath, or a long, coastal drive. The directness of the lyrical content is matched only by the weary, emotional heft with which they’re delivered, like the haunted, vulnerable soul that inhabits Time Out of Mind. As “Eyes to the Wind”, the soaring, swelling ballad that acts at the album’s centrepiece, reaches its seismic peak, he roars – “There’s just a stranger, living in me”. It feels so gloriously anthemic that you can’t help bawl it out with him, before realising quite what you’re saying. For a record so concerned with intense, overbearing paranoia, it’s mighty communal. Steven Hyden's Grantland article best points out the album's close kinship with A Ghost Is Born – in how it "vividly conveys the experience of feeling disconnected from other people, and even your own body, strictly via the sound and texture of the music. It’s not accurate to classify Dream as “depressing,” because it’s really not, particularly given the album’s hopeful second half. It’s more that it evokes the sensation of feeling depressed."

And this is where a great record becomes a truly seminal one. It doesn’t just exist on paradoxes, it thrives on them. It embraces the darkness and desolation that inspired it, and imagines the lightness that could dissolve them. It is the product of true obsession that bears analysis as an intricate labyrinth of musicianship, but needs only the simple four-chord acoustic strum that closes “In Reverse” to knock you for six. Its internal writhing tensions co-exist with its lush exterior. It’s soaked with ghostly echoes of the past, but is hell-bent on moving forward. If Lost in the Dream started with Granduciel stripped as bare as he could be – giving up meat, alcohol, drugs, relationships – it ends somewhere in the future, where a man so totally torn apart can emerge from great sadness into something hopeful and whole. On the album’s final song, he reaches a strange, beautiful clarity – you can be lost, lonely and fractured, but that can still be a first step towards finding redemption. If the title refers to the feeling of being totally disconnected from everything, and even yourself, its narrative skew demands that how you have to be aware of it before you can fix it. It’s the final sucker-punch of an emotional rollercoaster, the cathartic release from exorcising his personal demons, and the last word of this timeless, transcendent gem.

I first heard this record in a strange period of my life – living alone for the first time, and spending more time in my own head than ever before as a consequence. I was self-conscious of interactions I never had been before, and found myself feeling pretty out of sync a lot of the time. This album was (and remains) a curious, addictive, but comforting companion, and like the truly best records, hooks you so intensely on its internal world so that your personal narrative feels inextricably linked to its sonic ebbs and tides. If I needed bucking up, I'd listen to "Burning", and if I wanted to wallow, I'd listen to "In Reverse", and each time felt mesmerised into another state by their atmosphere. On my own paltry scale, I felt an affinity to this perfect record, which reveals more to me every time I hear it. If you haven’t already, seek it out, and get a little lost in it yourself.

Lost in the Dream was released via Secretly Canadian. Check out Granduciel's first interview about the recording of the album, exclusively with Best Fit.

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