When I first saw that the War on Drugs were playing two nights at Paramount Theatre, one of Seattle's largest performance venues, I was aghast. How?! Why?! Could there really be that much demand for an earnest epigone of Bruce Springsteen circa “Dancing in the Dark”? Yes, apparently there could. WOD leader Adam Granduciel had cracked the code—without even combing his hair!
The War on Drugs' meteoric rise from mid-range indie hopefuls to globe-trotting stars struck me as an inflection point—or maybe just another mundane reminder about the major-label ecosystem's tragically flawed system, which inevitably rewards the blandest proponents of any given style. Why did the War on Drugs win the lottery when dozens, if not hundreds, of other artists who've been ploughing the same field of glossy, widescreen Americana over the last 15 years did not? Perhaps WOD have a phenomenal PR team hyping their middling wares? Perhaps the band's storied label, Atlantic Records, called in some favors at radio stations, streaming services, online and print publications, etc. etc., and ergo, the hype machine revved up to optimal levels?
Whatever the case, you couldn't find a handier metaphor for the decline of mainstream rock in the 21st century than the War on Drugs' 2017 release A Deeper Understanding winning a Grammy for Best Rock Album. Yet respected media outlets such as MOJO, NPR, and Pitchfork (disclosure: I contribute to the latter) have heaped praise upon WOD's latest full-length, last year's I Don't Live Here Anymore. Review aggregator Metacritic reveals an 85 composite rating for it; that is high, in both senses of the word. This critical gushing over these anodyne quasi-anthems imbued with muted jubilation mystifies. Every song on I Don't Live Here Anymore seems hamstrung by “tasteful” production touches, every artistic decision hell-bent on compromise. The emperor's new factory-distressed denim jacket fits perfectly on Mr. Granduciel.
For a minute in 2011, I had a flicker of admiration for WOD's second album, Slave Ambient, the peak of their stint on large indie label Secretly Canadian. Tracks such as “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” “It's Your Destiny” (featuring Granduciel lookalike guitarist/vocalist Kurt Vile), “City Reprise #12,” “Baby Missiles,” and “Original Slave” pushed some of my comfort-food-music buttons: atmospheric rock, motorik, Neu!-lite motion, the cascading guitar drones of New Zealand's Snapper, etc. But in the ensuing decade, WOD increasingly tilted toward Xanax'd Dylan karaoke and workmanlike, Reagan-era Springsteenisms—whose origins were already workmanlike, so... diminishing returns.
Anyway, with these biases swirling in my head, I decided to attend a War on Drugs show and entertain the possibility that I'd been overly harsh on them. Maybe they're one of those “you gotta see 'em live to really understand the appeal” groups. I wish I could report that Granduciel's seven-strong band of competent pros knocked my skepticism tumbling onto Pine Street. But no. However, the large—but not capacity—crowd begged to differ, in thunder. (The War on Drugs also play tonight at Paramount.)
Over 20 songs in 2.5 hours, the War on Drugs delivered faithful reproductions of their recorded output, leaning heavily on I Don't Live Here Anymore. Granduciel sang in his Dylanesque rasp (but before it became phlegmy, mercifully) over gently melancholic ballads and swift, pellucid rockers that instilled that blasé feeling of driving on highways devoid of traffic and notable landmarks. Nearly every tune ended with the aural equivalent of a shrug. Climaxes? Surprising twists? How gauche.
Deviations from prevalent Brucezak™ modes were scant. Although the expected Dylan cover was of an unexpected deep cut—“Born in Time” from Bob's late-'80s Oh Mercy sessions—it too blended into standardized WODification. “Brothers,” a rare dip into Slave Ambient, offered the night's most sublime melody, and the tense drone leading into “Come to the City” was just the sort of anomaly this performance could've used more of. The set's 16th song—whose title escapes me—began with a nice space-rock guitar solo by Granduciel before shifting into that damnably familiar midtempo gait, but it ended in the night's only rave-up, its only demonstration of abandon.
The candy-coated resignation of the radio-focus track “I Don't Live Here Anymore” threatened to break into ABC's “Be Near Me,” but the line about dancing to “Desolation Row” was chuckle-worthy. When golden-voxed keyboardist/guitarist Eliza Hardy Jones sang her part, it was a welcome respite from Granduciel's grayscale Bobtones. Her cameo spotlighted a major problem with WOD: a limited sonic palette—despite having seven musicians onstage!—with a concomitant lack of stylistic variety.
But what about the relatability of Adam's lyrics, fans will plead. Well, I'm happy you draw consolation from them, but if the music isn't interesting, they are a moot point... possibly the most moot point in all of art. In a recent essay about J Dilla, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote something about song lyrics with which I strongly concur:
There is a dogged tendency in music criticism to focus on lyrics. The words of singers are treated as both the target and source of meaning, the bit that demands unpacking, even though, as words, they are closer to self-evident than anything else in a song. Gently, I want to suggest that popular music is a wild cloud contained by recordings that invite repeated listening, but rarely because of words. Popular music exists first as sound. Hills? Dying? These are they.
This lonely dissent on Slog from mass WOD worship won't hinder their ascent one bit, of course. If current trends hold, in 2027 the War on Drugs will be playing on Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin for an unfathomably large sum in a cryptocurrency yet to be nightmared into circulation.