Over the course of five albums, The War On Drugs have refined their ‘Bob Dylan fronting the E Street Band’ arena rock approach to perfection. It’s a trend that continues on I Don’t Live Here Anymore, their latest record. Unfortunately, they’ve now polished that sound to the point of dulling its impact. This isn’t a bad record, but it isn’t one that sticks in the memory after playing and demands to be put on again.
It’s all just a bit too tasteful, a bit too careful. The sound has been precision-tooled for arenas and in the process lost its emotional heft. The same hallmarks – driving drums, widescreen synths and soaring guitars – remain, but they are hampered by the overwhelming sense of restraint.
That is not to say that the band is operating on auto-pilot. There is plenty of evidence of them trying to keep things varied and interesting. ‘Rings Around My Father’s Eyes’, for example, begins with slowly strummed acoustic guitar before building into a stately, lighters aloft ballad. Meanwhile, ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’, with its heavily processed drums and vocals, sounds like it could be a Phil Collins cut from the same sessions as ‘In the Air Tonight’. But these attempts at experimentation don’t venture far enough out of the territory of the rest of the album to have the impact they otherwise might.
Matters also aren’t helped by the lyrics. Anyone familiar with the band will know what to expect. The songs are filled with the same vaguely poetic aphorisms as previously. On this occasion, however, they seem more noticeably trite. On ‘Change’ Adam Granduciel sings about “sheltering in the doorway from rising storms”, whilst ‘Hamonica’s Dream” contains the sub-Springsteen image of “leaves falling like rain”. The songs all seem vaguely meaningful on the surface, but actually seeming to be about anything in particular. Taken in conjunction with the overly-polished production, they leave a glossy surface with little depth.
If my words up to this point make it sound like this record is a disaster, then that is unfair. The songs are well crafted, often anthemic and will no doubt be enjoyed by many. I would be interested to see what they sound like live. I suspect that the issues they have on record – particularly the sense of restraint – would be mitigated. I can see them sounding fantastic in that context.
Perhaps it’s just because of the very high bar they’ve set for themselves as a band with both their records and live performances. Maybe if this was the work of a different band without that same history I would be less underwhelmed. But their last two records have been on heavy repeat on my headphones and record player since they came out. They demanded my attention and their melodies and choruses wormed their way into my head. I can’t see that being the same with this one. The number of people who have this on their best of 2021 lists suggests that I might be wrong on this one, though!
Words by Will Collins