For those of you who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia’s Americana-rock group The War on Drugs, there’s one thing that you need to know going in: they sound a hell of a lot like Bob Dylan. It’s not a bad quality, obviously, to bring to mind one of the most beloved and influential musicians of the twentieth century, but I felt that needed to be acknowledged right off the bat. I could talk about their style all day without capturing everything conveyed by that one little statement.
Now, I’ve never been a person to whom classic rock appealed very much. As has been my experience watching older movies, I find it takes a lot of effort to put myself in a frame of mind where the styles don’t feel dated. It’s easy to understand on an intellectual level why The Beatles changed the course of music history, why the original Star Trek revolutionized popular science fiction and television in general, and why Vertigo is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time. But making the leap from academic appreciation to visceral, emotional connection with those pieces has always been a struggle.
This is obviously exacerbated by the fact that I personally didn’t grow up with much exposure to the classics, but I think it’s illustrative of a larger point. Finding emotional resonance with old stuff is hard. Whether your cutoff is thirty, fifty, or seven hundred years ago, you’re eventually going to hit a point where it becomes difficult to relate to art.
And that is exactly the genius of The War on Drugs. Rather than resigning themselves to cultural Ludditism like so many other throwback bands, they’re not afraid to blend elements of contemporary pop with the old-school Americana rock that’s their bread and butter. Take “Red Eyes,” for example, the single off of their newest LP, Lost in the Dream. The driving element of the song is a pretty straightforward electric guitar line, but what makes the track stand out is a saturated canvas of synths that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Passion Pit album. Rather than obscuring the classic sound, the electronic pieces provide a context that highlights the most salient vocal and instrumental moments.
This melding of generations is quite a bit more subtle throughout the rest of the album, which may make it somewhat less accessible if you’re expecting ten tracks that sound like the single. But I, for one, was glad that it forced me to broaden my horizons a little. Songs like “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” “Eyes to the Wind,” and “Burning” never would have sold me on the album a week ago, but after several repeated listens they became some of my absolute favorites.
Lost in the Dream certainly lives up to its name. It takes its time, often meandering through long, contemplative instrumental sections for several minutes straight. Hell, only two of the songs are less than five minutes long, and the album opener clocks in at just under nine. But it’s also the sort of record that gets better with time. Even if it’s not your cup of tea right off the bat (as it wasn’t mine), it’s worth the couple of days it takes to settle into your psyche.
Lost in the Dream drops this Tuesday, March 18 on Secretly Canadian. Until then, feel free to tide yourself over with the official video for “Red Eyes.”