The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Americana | Heartland Rock
There are plenty of bands who have appeared on the scene and just completely changed everything that followed. They’ll drop a record that offers a new approach to a sound, bring a different energy to a style, or say something that needed to be expressed, and at the drop of a hat it can become a cornerstone of popular culture. It becomes a marker for a new era – with a clear sense of before and after – and in everything that follows you can find its spark and influence in a myriad of different places, which can all be traced back to that one defining moment. Usually such landmark records tend to be debuts, as it stands to reason that it would be the source of something new and exciting, but on occasion bands may just flip a switch mid-career, settle in to a new creative flow, and end up being the catalyst for something far greater.
For a good few years The War On Drugs were just another band; going at their own pace, doing their own thing. But with 2014’s Lost In The Dream the world became a different place. The band were lifted out of relative obscurity into being one of the most influential acts of the 2010s. It took the warm and familiar feel of heartland rock icons like Springsteen and Petty and painted the world depicted in those songs as if it was a shimmering mirage in the distance. A hypnotic drone that drove you forward to investigate, a dreamy, wistful haze that toed the line between hopeful and haunting. Soft psychedlica that gave the world a gentle otherworldly glamour, and an expansive sound that felt like it stretched on beyond the horizon. In the aftermath so many acts (new and established) have drawn inspiration from it, and have sought to capture that same dreamy atmosphere and sense of scope. With one record The War On Drugs inadvertently became the new blueprint for the Great American Band.
It’s a spark that’s often been imitated but never replicated, even by the band themselves. Something was missing from 2017’s A Deeper Understanding. A good soundtrack for an adventure but not an adventure in and of itself. It drifted and meandered but never really took you on a journey, it was grand in scale but somehow you could sense its limits, and above all it lacked the kind of highlights and hooks that made its predecessor such a joy to return to. On I Don’t Live Here Anymore those moments are top of the agenda. It’s the band’s most streamlined and focussed outing, dialling back on some of the more indulgent tendencies to instead prioritise brighter melodies and more anthemic choruses. The slick title track, elevated by the backing vocals of Lucius, brands the sublime refrain of “we’re all just walking through this darkness on our own” on the forefront of your mind. ‘Harmonia’s Dream’ and ‘Wasted’ both boast vibrant shimmering synths and the album’s most infectious melodies, with the latter propelled by a driven and purposeful rhythm section. There’s a lot of the arena ready sheen of The Killers here, which is ironic given how much their recent output has drawn from The War On Drugs.
Part of what makes this the band’s most accessible offering yet is in how it brings Adam Granduciel’s vocals forward out of the haze. His performance is much clearer and more confident, where before his voice was just another layer in the dense soundscape. While it’s clear that Adam isn’t the most accomplished or versatile vocalist, this change adds a nice personal touch and brings the lyrics into focus. The title track grabbed me with such lines as “Time surrounds me like an ocean, My memories like waves, Is life just dying in slow motion, Or getting stronger everyday?“, but it’s closing track and album highlight ‘Occasional Rain’ that I found myself most touched by. The whole closing final verse is an absolute delight: “Feel the storm coming on, Feel the darkness at your gate, Live the loneliness of life, Keep on moving at your pace, Ain’t the sky just shades of grey, Until you seen it from the other side? Oh, if loving you is the same, It’s only some occasional rain.” It perfect summarises the album’s themes of standing firm in the face of change, holding on to the important things, and ultimately facing what’s on the other side.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore makes a lot of positive changes, and an excellent record is what awaits you on the other side, but curiously while everyone else is trying to sound like The War On Drugs the band themselves keep their dreamy expansive side on a short leash this time around. It shimmers away in the back behind the airy melodies, and only gets its time in the spotlight when you’ve been patient enough to earn it. Folky opening track ‘Living Proof’ closes with a simply gorgeous solo that makes your world feel that bit warmer, ‘Harmonia’s Dream’ spirals off onto a glorious freewheeling tangent, while the slow burning ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’, its opening reminiscent of ‘In The Air Tonight’, concludes with a brief release of furiously fuzzy guitar. The only pay off that doesn’t quite land is the jarring squalls in the latter half of the dark new-wave inspired ‘Victim’.
The shimmer, that X factor that put them on the map, is still there, but simply isn’t the focus this time around. Rather than all your attention bewitched by the illusion of some desert mirage, this record draws your gaze to something tangible while the desert haze flickers in your periphery. I don’t think the two need be mutually exclusive though, and I’d love Adam and the gang to combine this new anthemic approach with their most hypnotic and expressive soundscapes. I Don’t Live Here Anymore isn’t another iconic cultural cornerstone, but it is a damn fine record. Proof that their past brilliance was no fluke and their canonisation as the next Great American Band was well deserved. As great as it is to hear their hallmarks in the work of other artists, its just not a patch on the real deal.