Photo: Jack Hedges

Over the last three years, The War On Drugs became one of our biggest rock ’n’ roll bands—mostly while nobody was looking. On 2014’s Lost In The Dream, the group delivered a confident statement of intent that found it plumbing the depths of AOR radio for nostalgic sounds to weave together and drown in reverb. It was familiar but thrilling, a blend of time-tested fundamentals that came together as something more meaningful than a mere, delightful tickle of our collective musical memories. The album received universal acclaim, and soon the band was selling out shows on a two-year world tour, getting name-dropped by Apple executives, and signing with a major label.

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Appropriately, that major-label debut, A Deeper Understanding, is the band’s biggest outing yet, by every conceivable application. The ambition behind its songs and the enormity of the band’s sound and scope has grown right alongside its profile. The alchemical combination The War On Drugs perfected with Lost In The Dream is still the template, but that last record sounds restrained and lean by comparison, even if their difference in runtime is just a few measly minutes. Understanding’s songs are so towering and dense they threaten to topple over into soupy monotony, but what’s most impressive about these 10 tracks is the way frontman Adam Granduciel and his bandmates prop them up with an endless supply of electrifying, ear-catching details. As big as the sum of its songs’ parts get, this is a band that never fails to remember there’s just as much awesome power in the little things.

It’s also a band that knows the value of a deftly deployed guitar solo. Here they’re uniformly fantastic, but better even than the licks themselves is the timing and meaningfulness with which they’re used. During the choruses of “Pain,” Granduciel sings about fighting to break from life’s repetition and our own lack of control over the things around us, whispering the final line of “I wanna find what can’t be found” before lashing out with the ear-splitting note that kicks off a defiant solo. The whole of “Strangest Thing,” a slow-burning album highlight, builds to Granduciel passionately declaring he wants to run; liberated at last, the band blasts into the song’s transcendent finale.

Granduciel has called Deeper Understanding the most focused “band record” the group has recorded, with the noted perfectionist pushing his bandmates further than ever in collaboration and performance. Across the many lush arrangements on the hour-plus journey, everyone gets a shot at the spotlight, and just as much care has gone into the more subtle hooks they create. “Up All Night” opens the album with a pastiche of rubbery keys and a pulsating rhythm section. It languidly drives forward—taking a break for a quick-and-fuzzy guitar solo, of course—but the most striking shift is the gentle, descending keyboard that leads the transition from the song’s bouncy body to its downtempo closing stretch. On “In Chains,” it’s the drums that emerge to overshadow the song’s somewhat-sappy piano lines and bang the whole thing back into shape.

It’s crazy to think that Lost In The Dream—an album with music that sounded destined for arenas—could come off as small in comparison just three years later, but that’s exactly the effect A Deeper Understanding has. With much higher expectations weighing on the band, it’s produced a successor that shines up and builds on that breakthrough in every way. With the sheen and endless resources of major-label production behind it, Understanding could have easily become bloated and ponderous. But even when it very nearly does, particularly in the back third, it’s always reined in by the attention to detail, and the innate understanding of the exact moment to elevate things with a tiny yet effective new melody or a big, unexpected transition. If The War On Drugs were to, somehow, aim even higher from here, A Deeper Understanding affirms it’s the kind of band that could actually pull it off.

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