Anyone familiar with the War on Drugs doesn't need any help identifying the Philadelphia band's influences; they're known for mixing straight-laced classic rock a la Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty or Dire Straits with bleary psychedelia and hypnotic Krautrock, making for a sound that is at once nostalgic and alien.
On A Deeper Understanding, the outfit's first album since making the major-label leap to Atlantic Records, the fundamental blueprint remains the same; there are still timeless heartland anthems doused in atmospheric synths, with arrangements that favour sprawling grooves over sing-along refrains. This time around, however, all of the sonic elements have snapped into focus: the drums are booming, the guitar leads are vivid, and even the washes of synths are bright rather than bleary. The instrumentation is richer and more varied than ever, with riffs built on top of riffs weaving an immaculate tapestry of tones that's ornately layered without sounding overstuffed or muddy.
The gorgeous soundscapes make for some stunning moments: "Nothing to Find" builds towards a thundering crescendo with a towering keyboard hook (think the cheerful organ hook of "Walk of Life" crossed with the grandeur of "Born to Run"), while 11-minute centrepiece "Thinking of a Place" glides wonderfully between aching folk rock, cinematic ambience and gently nocturnal piano motifs.
Perhaps the pristine soundscapes are a result of the War on Drugs' new major-label budget — or maybe it's because bandleader Adam Granduciel is a renowned perfectionist who clearly agonized over every minute detail on the record. Whatever the case, the result is that A Deeper Understanding is a less like a hazy, hypnogogic approximation of big-budget rock and more like the real thing. A big, bold sound isn't a bad thing, but the fact that this album is a little less engrossing than the band's past efforts shows that the most interesting thing about the War on Drugs' music isn't the way they channel their rock influences, but the way they subvert them. (Atlantic)