Review: The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

There were high expectations for the latest album from The War on Drugs as they followed up their breakthrough Slave Ambient, a fixture of many 2011 year-end lists.  It’s safe to say that not only has the band met the challenge with Lost In The Dream, but they’ve exceeded even the most ambitious projections.  The band has further honed their distinct style of 80’s Americana pitched through the hazy lens of shoegaze, finding even more common ground between what had seemed to be two unconnected genres.  The combination helps make Lost In The Dream simultaneously one of the most comforting and thrilling releases of the year.

The exciting lead single “Red Eyes”  gave us a clue as to the direction of the album, with the punch of an upbeat rocker that is reminiscent of Slave Ambient highlight “Baby Missiles”.  Instead of keeping the intensity at 11 for the duration of the song though, the song slowly builds and builds, gradually adding layers and volume; the performance is captured so well that the listener can feel it down to each and every snare hit.  On Slave Ambient, “Baby Missiles” served as the climax for the whole album–the band shuffled between shimmery ambient melodies and reverb-soaked folk before coalescing into the big kick of that single.  The War On Drugs took the template of the album and applied it to each song on Lost In The Dream, giving the album a forward propulsion even amid the natural emotional ebb and flow.  This skill allows the band to indulge in longer songs without ever losing momentum.  Opener “Under the Pressure” is a perfect example of this, which even though it runs nearly nine minutes long, it keeps the listener’s attention the whole time.

With their previous work, The War On Drugs were eager to explore dreamier soundscapes, which while pleasant, gave some of their work an unfocused aspect that allowed the listener’s attention to drift before a more fully-formed song would appear from the haze.  With Lost In The Dream, the band has moved into a much more song-based approach (save the instrumental interlude “The Haunting Idle”).  One may attribute this shift perhaps to the absence of Kurt Vile; one can almost sense a split in the identity since that album, as Vile has continued to mine that vein in his subsequent solo work.  It’s not a drastic difference–the trademark style of The War On Drugs is definitely still evident.  There is still a heavy dose of reverb-soaked guitars and vocals, with synth lines that thicken up folk-tinged rock songs that don’t rework old Springsteen and Tom Petty, but captures their spirit.  One can even hear the influence of Bob Seger, right down to the title, in “Eyes to the Wind”.

Throughout the course of the album, the band displays an incredible knack of building complex songs and evoking strong emotions from simple elements.  Most songs are built on the basic rock beat with an emphasis on the 2 and 4 by the snare, with only slight deviations from that formula (for example, the added delay/reverb effect added to the kick and snare on “Disappearing”).  It seems that the band took Homer’s advice of “Why have burger when you can have steak?” to heart, since they know that the beat gets the job done–it forever moves the song forward, pushing the listener’s anticipation into the next phrase.  They manage to keep this repetition from getting stale mostly through the use of dynamics, enhancing the natural push of the rhythm and allowing the song to build organically.  “An Ocean In Between The Waves” is a perfect example of this, and one can imagine how the crowd will eat it up when they hear it live.

It’s amazing how organic the album sounds, as if it was done by a band recording live, when it was actually mainly a solo record.  Stereogum has an excellent behind the scenes look at the making of the album, which is definitely worth reading.  There was an incredible amount of effort that went into the making of Lost In The Dream, and it paid off with what is surely one of the best albums of the year.

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