Loneliness and paranoia course through the War on Drugs’s 2014 album Lost in the Dream, which frontman Adam Granduciel began writing during a bout of depression. A more subtle bleakness, however, pervades the band’s follow-up, A Deeper Understanding. Both psychedelia-tinged albums share a similar sonic blueprint: hazy, 1980s-inspired heartland rock that shifts the Philadelphia indie rockers away from the folky, Dylan-esque sound of their earlier efforts. But while Granduciel’s songwriting continues to juxtapose rich, sunny arrangements with wistful, soul-searching lyricism, A Deeper Understanding explores self-imposed barriers rather than bracing against outside pressures as its predecessor did.
Granduciel fixates on the notion that human nature so often wants “to find what cannot be found.” This pursuit of the unobtainable often involves physical motion, and the album frequently returns to well-worn travel imagery, as elusive happiness is portrayed as hiding just around the bend. But it’s the unyielding flow of time and his own perceived inability to keep up with it that’s particularly troubling to Granduciel. On “Pain,” he wonders, “Am I moving back in time/Just standing still?,” pointing to a tendency to resist what he can’t control, while on “Nothing to Find” he struggles to comprehend life’s perpetual changes amid his own feelings of increasing irrelevance.
Still, there’s a touch more optimism on A Deeper Understanding than on previous War on Drugs efforts. The invigorating opening track, “Up All Night,” announces that “it’s just stopped raining,” and Granduciel is “stepping out into the light.” When he does sound forlorn, Granduciel blames himself for his feelings. On “Knocked Down,” he’s stuck in a rut, unable to give love to another because he “can’t break free to be one that [he] should dare to be.” He inertly watches a lover disappear into the distance on the sprawling “Thinking of a Place,” whose flourishes of synth, vibraphone, Wurlitzer, and harmonica are deftly measured to avoid overwhelming the song with a dense wall of sound.
The album’s lyrics, however, can’t match this same level of musical precision, and Granduciel too often repeats the same vague sentiments using threadbare imagery. He’s particularly obsessed with cold, dark nights, and often relies on the moon and rain for melodramatic symbolism. The unrelenting motif of these dark nights of the soul and long, winding roads—as well as the contrast of yearning for the light—grows tiresome, blunting the impact of the War on Drugs’s finely tuned music.