When I eventually suffer the misfortune of having to host my first dinner party later this year, it won’t be old favourites Can’t Buy a Thrill or Liquid Skin that I’ll turn to for the accompanying background music, it’ll be something like Lost in the Dream. I mean that as no sleight either; when consumed with intent there’s profound complexity in these dusty arrangements and each tender verse vocalist Adam Granduciel delivers drips with the difficulties of being human – but much like The War on Drugs’ previous LP Slave Ambient, it just sounds so pleasantly unobtrusive when processed autonomously into the subconscious that there’s no way anyone could object. I suppose that’s the great paradox of Granduciel’s disposition; he’s a man with a great deal to say, but he wraps his words so tightly in the breezy pit-stop vibes of ‘80s Americana that they’re often shielded from external cross-examination by their own hypnotic prettiness.
To an extent, that’s probably just Granduciel’s inert self-effacing nature at work – there’s no cry for attention here, just a man looking to make sense of things as he struggles with the weight of extinguished relationships and a confused sense of place. Yet, despite these strenuous concerns casting a shadow over every scribble that lies beneathLost in the Dream’s glazed surface, there’s still a refreshing lack of imposition in Granduciel’s words despite lowering his guard. Like, even if you’re not concerned with what’s he’s actually saying at all and would rather just bask in the rapture of the mesmerising rhythms, he’d probably still offer you a seat, hand you an ice-cold beer and tell you it’s cool.
Take gargantuan nine-minute opener ‘Under the Pressure’ — it begins positively out-of-focus, with dueling off-kilter hi-hat polyrhythms eventually learning to co-exist as a pulsating clockwork drum groove (the kind of determined 4/4 you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever heard Slave Ambient). An unassuming piano melody muses in unison with Grancudiel’s familiar Dylan drawl as virtuoso guitar licks flutter in the sun-kissed air (reminiscent of former bandmate & compatriot Kurt Vile). It’s all too easy to just roll the windows down and pump your fists between haphazard gear changes to the simple, piston-like indie-folk loops that occupy the space, and it’s almost enough to forget that it’s also one the most laid-back songs about holding your head above water ever.
Almost. For all the departures from Slave Ambient – it’s a lot less claustrophobic for example – Lost in the Dream is still riddled with this humility and the desire to keep going. If anything, the themes here are darker than they’ve ever been, but Granduciel is always quick to not paint his troubles in a self-aggrandising shade, and he’d rather dazzle you with finger-tapping melodies than drown you in melancholy. “I’m just a burning man trying to keep the ship from turning over again” he confesses with a steely resolve between the swirling keys and driving percussion of ‘Burning’, a track glued together from off-cuts of Springsteen’s scrapbook but with its own vibrant Pennsylvania shake. Even on bittersweet break-up finale ‘In Reverse’ Granduciel is still an optimist at heart, still fuelled enough by hope to drag himself in any direction through the blackness – “Like a light that’s drifting, in reverse I’m moving” he sings as interplaying pianos and acoustic guitar strums fade to reveal the contemplation of silence.
And it’s this transcendent ability to resonate on multiple planes of consciousness that makes Lost in the Dream such a devastatingly powerful and intricately constructed record. It’s more open and keenly focused than Slave Ambient, more willing to share. The highest peaks are reached not through drastic jolts of volume, but by small, incremental movements – note the subtle chord changes of ‘Red Eyes’ that dance around Granduciel’s vocal darts and the clever layering of slides and keys and strums on ‘Eyes to the Wind’ that make way for soothing Division Bell-esque saxaphones. It unquestionably leans heavily on classic American influences and 80s folk music in general, but so what? I know I’ll still be listening to Lost in the Dream in the dark long after my dinner party guests have left, much like Granduciel on the album’s hazy artwork, reading between the hand-crafted lines looking for deeper meaning.
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