The War on Drugs Continue Their Classic Rock-Tinged Era With 'I Don't Live Here Anymore'
My most anticipated record of the year, Adam Granduciel and company show why they are the masters of the studio once again on their most accessible outing
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Sometime during the summer of 2020, The War on Drugs’ bandleader Adam Granduciel took to Instagram Live to give fans a much-needed lift by previewing demos for the band’s upcoming record. Sure, the audio quality was terrible on pieces from a group that demands studio perfection. However, as Granduciel gave his commentary, the group’s signature sound of soaring guitars and hook-laden choruses was still identifiable. As someone that considers the band to be in my upper echelon of favorite artists, the idea of The War on Drugs reaching out with pandemic relief in the form of a new record had me buzzing.
Over a year later, we’re finally graced with I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the Philly band’s fifth album. For anyone listening for the past thirteen years, it’s a natural progression in their evolution as a band. Starting as a sprawling indie guitar act featuring Granduciel and Kurt Vile (for more, read my Slave Ambient anniversary retrospective here), Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Dire Straits have always been mentioned when comparing the band’s sound.
After reaching peak hazy heartland rock with Lost in the Dream, the band made the major-label jump to Atlantic. It took advantage of the studio setting, releasing A Deeper Understanding, which employed a more soft pop sound. The moves paid off, resulting in a Grammy win for Best Rock Album. Four years after A Deeper Understanding’s release, it was a mystery where The War on Drugs would head next, and for the most part, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is more of the same, which tends to be a good thing for most of the record’s fifty two minute running time.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore is most immediate when completely embracing the band’s tendency to explore the soft pop sounds of the late ’80s, and the record reaches limitless heights on the mid-album run of “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” “Victim,” and “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.” The vintage drum machine that opens “I Don’t Wanna Wait” is instantly recognizable, falling somewhere between Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” The beauty of The War on Drugs is that while they are here to remind us of classic rock’s past, their sound is truly unique at this point. “I Don’t Wanna Wait” shows this the most with longtime bassist Dave Hartley taking the lead on a seriously melodic sequence that sounds as if it has come off of Paul McCartney’s Höfner. Mixed with Granduciel’s piano and Wurlitzer work, the song is sure to be a legendary moment for the band.
“Victim” frames itself around a memorable piano hook and Charlie Hall’s galvanic drumming before giving way to a gnawing guitar line and John Natchez’s reliable baritone saxophone work. “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” is the second single from the album and the song that truly got me excited when it was released in September. It’s the poppiest iteration of The War on Drugs yet, a radio-ready piece that expertly walks the line between commercial sheen and the melodies that longtime fans are familiar with. Capturing lightning in a bottle is never an easy feat, but the group is ready for their moment, complete with a soaring chorus featuring Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucious.
Lyrically, Granduciel is in his normal state of romanticized suspended motion, singing about dreams and not going back or knowing the future. “Harmonia’s Dream” is a fine example of this with Granduciel singing, “I’m in a rolling wave, that moves across the line, am I losing my faith, we’re gonna lose it in time,” over Robbie Bennet’s commanding piano work. Meanwhile, “Change” is a classic Drugs song, but the fresh production from Granduciel and returning engineer Shawn Everett is updated, featuring distorted vocals and gorgeous synths as Granduciel wonders, “maybe I was born in the wrong way, maybe born on the wrong day.”
Unfortunately, I Don’t Live Here Anymore isn’t as immediate as its previous two predecessors. Opener “Living Proof” was an odd first single choice, an acoustic number that hasn’t fully grown on me since hearing it in July - neither has the back half of the record, as it’s full of moments that we’ve heard before. “Wasted” is the standout of these songs but gets lost in the mix of slower moments. As much as The War on Drugs has shown that their rulers of the studio, there’s always a chance these selections play out better live, which is the band’s optimal setting.
Full of towering highs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is an accomplished statement from this iteration of the band. A steady lineup has paid off as every member submits memorable moments throughout the record. As enjoyable as this phase is, though, hopefully, the group switches things up next time around. With a four-year gap between albums, I Don’t Live Here Anymore may have worked better had it found a release sooner.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore is available now on Atlantic Records.