Self-defeat is hard-wired into The War On Drugs—listening to the surging murkiness of Slave Ambient, it’s clear that the drugs won. But while the Philadelphia band occasionally dulls the impact of its otherwise-invigorating spin on classic-rock heroics with one too many layers of cloudy, atmospheric dross, the songs themselves always stand strong and sturdy once the funny-smelling smoke clears. The band’s first full-length since 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues, Slave Ambient is the culmination of several years of woodshedding and lineup changes, including the departure of original guitarist Kurt Vile. Similar to Vile’s excellent 2011 release Smoke Rings For My Halo, Slave Ambient applies jolts of disjointed noise and a laconic sensibility to the heartland-rock template. But where Vile draws people in with his weirdo-loner sensitivity, The War On Drugs goes big on Slave Ambient, strumming and swelling all the way back to the cheap seats.
Slave Ambient features a few tracks that originally appeared on last year’s great Future Weather EP, but they’ve been re-worked, buffed up, and tricked out. Actually, the album’s best track, “Baby Missiles,” appears pretty much as is, since the song’s contagious energy and Arcade Fire dramatics were spot-on the first time. But a fresh coat of sparkly jangle has been put on “Brothers,” and it glistens loud and proud right alongside real stadium-stompers like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and the illusory synth-rocker “It’s Your Destiny,” which draw equally from the open-hearted humanism of Tom Petty and the gloomy beauty (and chemicals) of Brian Jonestown Massacre.
With Adam Granduciel’s Dylan-esque drawl and a small orchestra of shimmering, vaguely noodly guitars as the group’s sonic trademarks, The War On Drugs is an unabashed trad-rock outfit. But Slave Ambient doesn’t recall the past so much as a bright, unexpected future, where bands like this inexplicably are still dreaming in new, refreshingly outsized ways.