There’s a Bill Hicks joke about the US government’s longstanding anti-narcotics campaign that pops into my head every time I talk about, write about or listen to The War On Drugs. I’ll leave it to your Google-mining skills to fill in the detail, but I’m sure you can guess whose side Hicks was on. It’s an appropriate introduction to Adam Granduciel and his reconstructed band, since nostalgic nudges are the currency they trade in most heavily. Their first album, Wagonwheel Blues, was a wonderfully rickety old affair that nodded to its authors’ preoccupation with a Jewish boy by the name of Zimmerman. Three years on and The War On Drugs’ have moved on: materially and musically, but thankfully, they’re still blissfully stoking the flames of yesteryear, with beautiful results.
The “new” sound was actually showcased on last year’s fantastic Future Weather EP (on which three of the eight vocal tracks here were featured), but it draws from a classic template. There are shades of Springsteen, Joshua Tree era U2 and final track ‘Blackwater’ proves that Granduciel’s Dylan fixation is alive and well in 2011. As with their debut, though, it would be wrong to call them revisionists. Rather than aping any one artist in particular, The War On Drugs have built a ramshackle, sonic time machine. From the gauzy, sepia-tinged synths that envelop the record throughout; to the wistful lyrics and vocals of the irrepressible frontman: listening to Slave Ambient sometimes feels like you’ve walked straight into a daydream.
Despite the detached aura (and ever so slight whiff of psychedelia), this is anthemic fare and is loaded with moments of head-back-eyes-closed splendour. Opening track, ‘Best Night’ untangles itself from the early bed of languid guitar to provide the most sing-along moment The War on Drugs have ever produced. ‘The Animator’ (one of a quartet of perfectly placed / paced instrumental tracks) segues gorgeously into the swaggering ‘Come To The City’ and ‘Baby Missiles’, with its Born In The USA issue backbeat, is as close as the band will ever get to breakneck.
There is little doubt whose band this is these days. But Granduciel’s voice is acquiescent throughout. Sometimes he whoops (‘Come To The City’), sometimes he sneers (‘It’s Your Destiny’), but for the most part, he is content to bury himself in the maelstrom of swirling guitars and driving percussion. In accepting sole control of the band he and Kurt Vile started in Philadelphia eight years ago, Granduciel has proven himself the equal of his celebrated, erstwhile sparring partner. Slave Ambient is a fine album that deserves to be recognised amongst the finest to have seen this lap of the sun. Nitpicking, I would suggest that those who parted with their hard-earned for Future Weather may be disappointed to find much of the material here too, but in new context, it sounds fresh. The rest of us should be toasting a year in which Granduciel and Vile (with Smoke Ring For My Halo) have blessed us with two modern classics.
Click on the album artwork above to hear an exclusive stream of Slave Ambient in full.