The War On Drugs
Lost in the Dream
[Secretly Canadian; 2014]
In the world of music journalism, the act of writing about one’s self within an album review is frowned upon. I try to adhere to this detached, information-based approach, although I probably fail to keep my own experiences out of a review more than I’d like. Take the latest War On Drugs album Lost in the Dream as an example. I’ve sat down several times over the past few weeks to write about this album of unrestrained synth-rock, but each time the review spirals into a therapy session on how this introspective music affected me in a vulnerable moment. Despite my inability to write about this album without bringing in my personal connection to the music, I still feel compelled to review Lost in the Dream, an album that has meant the world to me the past month.
It all started three weeks ago with a jarring text message from a friend, received just moments before the workday began: “James died last night at midnight.” My friend had been battling with leukemia for two years, and I’d already been warned that his final days were approaching. Regardless, I still wasn’t ready for the news – I guess we never are. The combination of shock and the workload in front of me helped me to quickly move on with my day, sweeping the horrible news under the metaphorical rug.
Around lunchtime, when I finally had a moment to breathe, I decided to finally give the new War On Drugs album a listen. As I scarfed down the blandest lunch combo ever, chicken breast and garbanzo beans, I found myself enjoying the serene atmospheres on the first two tracks of Lost in the Dream. Then the song “Suffering” arrived, and tore out my heart. Something about the calm, melancholy organ and the exhausted lead guitar unearthed the emotions I’d buried earlier that morning. Like a gushing geyser, I suddenly bent over my desk in agony, the tears pouring from my face, the memories flashing through my mind. His life as a veteran, an artist, a chef, a bass player, a teacher, a writer, an outdoorsman, and most importantly, a father – all of it gone at the age of 45. As I recalled the last time I saw him, lying in a hospital bed, tired and weak from battling with the pain of chemo therapy, Adam Gruciel’s disheartening lyrics came into my psyche, as if on cue, “I’ll be here frozen in time, / but you’ll be suffering.”
Since that moment, I can’t listen to Lost in the Dream without thinking of James. I’m not sure if he would have liked the album or not, being an avid fan of Guided By Voices and Jesus and the Mary Chain, but I can’t help but feel like fate intervened and brought this music to me as a means of coping with the loss. The songs all share the same soft, sweeping wall of synth, creating a warm atmosphere throughout the album. I’ve been a fan of War On Drugs for a while now, but never have the songs sounded so heartfelt and comforting. According a recent interview with Gruciel, the year-long recording process for Lost in the Dream was a demanding grind, but the patience and care can be heard on each lushly produced track.
The evolution of War On Drugs over the past six years is pretty profound. I was drawn into the band’s music with the lo-fi Americana found on 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues. Who would have thought they’d now be recording blossoming six to nine minute ambient pop-opuses? The folk beginnings are still evident on each track, but it wouldn’t be the first genre to come to mind for someone unfamiliar with the band. That folk sensibility is masked by layer upon layer of reverberated guitars, expanding synths, and even moments of orchestral swells.
“Eyes to the Wind” – a folk song at its core, but also so much more:
When I wrote about 2011’s Slave Ambient a few years ago, I made comparison to Tom Petty. This influence is still evident, as are other characters from the 80’s music landscape. Hints of Dire Straits, Genesis, The Cure, and Bruce Springsteen all inter-mingle throughout the album, yet the band is able to take all these 80s influences and create something that is innovative and unique.
But the real heart of this album is Gruciel’s lyrics. Every song reveals another ding in his armor, one painful tale after another. And despite this ever-mounting sense of loneliness and loss, the album never reveals the big pay-off, the big moment of redemption. Instead, it’s just suffering, again and again and again. By the end of the final track “In Reverse,” all that’s left is a softly shrieking synth and the echoes of distant waves crashing upon a forlorn beach. While you may think that as I deal with the loss of my friend, the last thing I would want to listen to is music that reminds me of the futility of life, but somehow, through Gruciel’s revelatory lyrics and calming production, I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in my sorrow.