The War on Drugs are a band that I liked from the first time I saw them, at Latitude in 2012, and have loved ever since they released their fourth album, Lost in the Dream, in 2014. In 2012, not knowing the band, I immediately took to their big, spacey sound, a combination of Americana and grunge. I likened them to Pearl Jam in that regard. But the roots of this band lie most of all in the classic sounds of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, with Neil Young, Freebird Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dire Straits inspiring the solos of Adam Granduciel, the main man, singer and lead guitarist. Lost in the Dream was an album that reflected its title: lost, in love or despair; hoping, dreaming of better times. Springsteen themes, for sure, but sung with a fragility and tenderness that made them less defiant, more forlorn. Instead, the most uplifting moments often came from the sounds of Adam’s guitar – in the words of Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe, crying to the sky.
There was something else that lifted the songs; a pounding motorik beat that seemed more European than American. German, to be precise. Never was that more so than on Lost in the Dream’s flagship tune, Under the Pressure. A nine minute anthem bookended by a flickering, shimmering build-up and a gradual, abstracted fade. In between a triumphant piano motif and relentless Euro-beat as Adam lamented being under the pressure. A universal feeling, but also one tied to a fragile relationship, it seemed. But in this song, the hurt of the words was overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the music. It was a song born to be the War on Drugs’ signature tune for all time.
There were epic tunes aplenty on Lost in the Dream – Red Eyes, Burning, Eyes to the Wind, An Ocean in Between the Waves – but the two ballads were the ones that hit home for me most of all. The title track was a sumptuous Dylanesque lament, straight from the Blood on the Tracks songbook; Suffering was about lost hope, but had a musical backdrop of languid beauty, cracked at the end by a tremolo guitar, a whisper of sax and a cry from Adam that pierced the soul. I had a bit of an epiphany with this song once, walking over Ebury Bridge in Pimlico, gazing over the railway lines with their snaking trains coming in and out of Victoria Station, and a hazy Battersea Power Station looming in the background. With that moment in mind, the song made its way into my novel, The Decision, as the hero, Charlie, had his dark night of the soul before the act that would launch him and his rebel group to prominence.
So yes, the War on Drugs became an important band for me. They played a sublime show at Latitude in 2014 at the end of a sequence of amazing bands – Parquet Courts, Eagulls, Fat White Family, Augustines – which probably still ranks as my finest memory of the festival. I saw them too at Brixton Academy in 2015, Alexandra Palace in 2017 and All Points East in 2018. Each time they were awesome – and each time they failed to play Suffering! Maybe it hurts too much to sing. Adam has been candid over the years about his struggles with depression – maybe it was a song too far. But Under the Pressure was always there, always a highlight, wherever it featured in the set.
The follow up to Lost in the Dream, A Deeper Understanding, came out in 2017. More discursive than its predecessor, it took me longer to appreciate fully, but it stands the test of time. My favourite two tracks are Thinking of a Place, which may have Adam’s finest guitar moments, and Pain, which rivals it on that account. You can tell from the song titles that Adam’s themes hadn’t changed, and the melodies on both those songs are the height of wistful. Lost in that dream.
It was four years until the next studio album I Don’t Live Here Anymore in October 2021. Nearly two years taken out by the pandemic, of course. I’d settled into listening to the songs I’ve mentioned above on various playlists, and not much else. I completely missed the fact that a live album had been released in 2020. When the new album came out I was surprised at how much promotion it was getting – billboards around London, in tube stations. And it was surprising to see that the London leg of the UK tour was at the O2 in the Dome, the largest indoor arena, I think. Had they become this big? When did that happen? I feared the worst – was the new album an attempt at larger audience, which would almost certainly mean commercialising the sound? More dinky beats, uptempo tunes and less guitar? Not my War on Drugs at all. My fears weren’t realised. There was more of a pop edge to some of the melodies, the production was a bit shinier, 80s style. But it was still discernibly the War on Drugs, with song titles like Victim, Old Skin, Wasted and Rings Around my Father’s Eyes. They hadn’t exactly gone happy-clappy.
Jon E, not previously a known War on Drugs fan, suggested getting some tickets for the O2 show. And so we were there last Tuesday. For various reasons, including wanting to watch Real Madrid vs Chelsea – a mystery to me, that one – Dave, Tony, Shane, Jon G and Louis all couldn’t come in the end, but Gab did, so we were three. Great seats, quite near to the front, to the left of the stage. The top tier of the O2 was closed and the seats were about two-thirds occupied; but the standing area looked full, and the atmosphere was tingling as the lights went down. The support band, Lo Moon were excellent. Based in LA, with some New York roots, they have a big sound in common with the War on Drugs, but it errs towards Coldplay and an element of shoegaze. I liked it a lot.
And so to the main attraction. First song, Old Skin, starting slow but building to a crescendo. And from there into Pain, truly magnificent. Already this felt like a level above what the band had done before. The sound, the lights, the solos. Every song seemed to soar. Around us, there were ecstatic fans, celebrating at the end of each song. It felt triumphal.
The set revolved around the last three albums, though we did also get Come to the City from Slave Ambient, the album featured at Latitude in 2012. The songs from the new album were prevalent of course, and they sounded fresh and sharp – those commercial elements worked really well in the arena. Which is what they were designed for, I guess: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, I Don’t Wanna Wait, Harmonia’s Dream – the new anthems. But the beautiful ballad got in there too: Living Proof, the album opener. This is unlike most War on Drugs songs, in that it doesn’t feel long enough. A lot of them meander to the finish. In contrast, Living Proof ends abruptly after a wonderfully delicate guitar solo. You really want another chorus, but it doesn’t arrive. A lovely song though, with that plaintive intro brings a tear to the eye.
In the first half of the show we had an Ocean in Between the Waves and Red Eyes from Lost in the Dream and The Strangest Thing from A Deeper Understanding. Each one infused with emphatic beats and embellished by the soaring solos. It reminded me of the Latitude show in 2014 when I thought to myself, it’s like Freebird in every song. The band are really tight, and Adam just lets rip with his guitar over the rich foundation they provide. Things peaked, of course, with Under the Pressure, third song from the end of the main set. As soon as those electro beats started ticking, the sense of anticipation rose. And this was the best I’ve ever heard it. A immense, immersive sound, the stage bathed in metallic light. And that relentless, driving beat. Sensational. I, for one, was filled with a sense of wonder – lost in the dream.
That may have been the peak, but there were more delights to come. I Don’t Live Here Anymore and Occasional Rain, both from the new album, completed the main set brilliantly. And then the encore exceeded all my hopes. First a magisterial Thinking of a Place; and then, for the first time on this tour I think, Lost in the Dream. A moment of pure joy. And that wasn’t even the end. To round things off we were treated to a version of Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane – an acknowledgement of where this band have come from.
I think the War on Drugs are now operating at a level above anything they have done before. When I first saw them I wondered whether their more delicate songs could translate to the stadiums. There’s no doubt now – this is a band that fills the arena, the stadium with a huge sound, a triumphal sound, but one that can still tug the heartstrings. Inevitably, as time advances, we will see and hear less of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and others of their generation(s). Adam Granduciel and the War on Drugs are one of those bands that stand ready to keep the flag flying.