Adam Granduciel spent most of the last year locked into an obsessed relationship — always pushing, pulling — with the newest War on Drugs material. That seems to be a natural state for him, though the recording process this time around drove him to sleepless nights and panic-ridden days in the studio.
"It just feels good to have it, like, out there and to have people come to these shows and connect with these songs on a different level," Granduciel says. He's speaking from Denver, about a week into the tour. Though emotions certainly run high, he is humbly at ease with the new album's skyrocketing critical acclaim.
And acclaim seems an understatement even at this early point. Denizens of the music blogosphere have leapt onto Lost in the Dream, calling it the most formidable contender for Album of the Year. It's easy to see why. There's something simultaneously introspective and anthemic about the whole thing. At every point in the album, the band toes the line between the ontological and the physical.
Such strains are on brilliant display in "An Ocean in Between the Waves" and "Eyes to the Wind." The latter, a Rhodes-driven tune that just stirs the spirit with its introspective wanderings, boasts a spacey Americana vibe that expands widely on what earlier War on Drugs albums set up. And "An Ocean..." is a fine example of the impeccable songcraft — the obsessive hours spent toiling with verses and, later, mixing. Granduciel's lead work on that one sometimes sounds like he plucked it from the same tree that once sprouted Jeff Tweedy's soulful solo on 2003's "At Least That's What You Said." Comparisons to latter-day Wilco with a dash of monumental 80s Springsteen are easy to find throughout Lost in the Dream. And combinations like that are awash in sonic waves of memory and harmonic trills.
"I think the nice thing is that we were taking the recording process to find out what exactly each song meant," Granduciel says. "I was able to unlock the magic for each song. Once you have that on the record, then when you go to play it, everyone knows what the song is supposed to feel like. And it's definitely a lot looser; we're not locked into a lot of drum machine stuff for the songs on this record. They're just becoming a little bit bigger, a little livelier."
On the subject of the tour, which is making its way to Cleveland right this moment: "I'm really confident in the touring band now — more than I ever have been. All the people involved, it's kinda like the dream band. It's how we've always wanted to have it."
Whatever sense of cohesion Granduciel is getting at there is quite clear across the new album. It's been pretty clear from the get-go that War on Drugs is mostly a solo outlet for the guy's songwriting and sheer need to express a few things. The recording process often consists of Granduciel hammering out various parts, then handing them to the other musicians — Dave Hartley on bass, either Pat Berkery or Charlie Hall or Jon Ashley on drums, frequently Robbie Bennett on keys, and others — who in turn lay down their tracks on their own time. While the band practiced together in the run-up to the tour, Lost in the Dream came together piecemeal. Listening to the album, that seems an impossibility.
"Sometimes that spark hits, and you have a little idea or a little progression," Granduciel says. "I work on that stuff for a few weeks and tend to demo that stuff early, and then see it evolve." At one point he handed the band members a demo CD — stuff he had been tooling around with at home. That stuff blossomed over time, though not without the aforementioned bouts of anxiety, stress and obsessive episodes fraught with peril.
"At the end of the day, with everything on the record, I had gone back to the original recording, the original demo, that first impression. We built up from those," Granduciel continues. "The original idea was still in there in some way."
By relative standards, Granduciel's ascent to indie icon of sorts has come slowly and rather late in life, for whatever that's worth. Standards like that have no place in discussions about his band; likewise, they miss the point entirely.
Granduciel began his craft in earnest out in California after college, banging out dusty hymns in his bedroom and looping siren calls across his chords. After stopping by Boston for a minute, he eventually moved to Philly and built up "Arms Like Boulders" and "Taking the Farm" — tunes that both nabbed professional attention and honed his approach to American roots music.
The main result of those years was Wagonwheel Blues, a towering album that also featured early bandmate Kurt Vile on guitar (who later left to pursue solo stuff). The band rambled onward, acting mostly like a massive Granduciel music experiment. He's both at the helm and in the trenches on each of the succeeding albums. By the time he and the band arrived on the shores of 2011's Slave Ambient, there was some serious magic happening.
That summer and all throughout 2012, the band hit the road on a much broader level. Festival appearances brought in new fans by the truckload. The people came, all wondering wherefore this urban-dreamy lament had come.
The hallmark of the War on Drugs' sound was crystallizing to some extent back then. Granduciel's hazy poetry was wrung through layers and layers of fuzz and spellbinding roots rock. It was like Highway 61 Revisted had gobbled a bunch of acid and spent the night wandering central Philadelphia.
Differing from Slave Ambient's loop-drenched recording process, the stuff on Lost in the Dream sounds more meticulous, more measured.
"A lot of [the songs] went through different transformations. Or I put a few on the back burner for a couple months when I felt I was confused about what was going on with it. Sometimes it got a little out of my hands," he says. "It's like a puzzle in some weird way."
Forced to deal with a bad break-up and a rock band whose ascent just could not be slowed (in the best of ways), Granduciel pounded pen into paper and pressed an odyssey to vinyl. The War on Drugs is a different band than they were just two or three short years ago. Even as ego takes a backseat to the dreamlike present moment and nothing more, this is a statement album. A big statement. The band's work has vaulted them to some different plane, something other than the rest of the indie rock circuit.
If anything, that's due to simple honesty.
"I just wanted to, you know, produce a set of songs that I felt more personally attached to, rather than sonically attached to," Granduciel says. "It just happened to be kind of around that same time that I was less concerned with what I was writing about. I was just trying to do it from the heart, without making it too insular.
Granduciel talks casually about the album, the band, his life. He's a music lover at heart, one guy just trying to add his voice to the patchwork artistic ocean surrounding him. There are traces of all sorts of influences in his work. Yes, there's the anthemic Americana, already well built and stocked before he came along. And there's Philadelphia with all its realness. There's also the day-to-day strife of just getting by, which is something we're all probably trying to figure out.
"Whatever stories or lyrics I'm putting out there, I like to think that people can still relate and not feel totally removed from the song," he says.
The War on Drugs, 9 p.m., Saturday, April 12, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $13, grogshop.gs.
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