No matter how or when you got on board with the War on Drugs, it’s hard not to feel the same level of excitement going into their new album as someone listening to them for the first time. It’s a trick the Adam Granduciel-led outfit have managed to pull off time and time again, an especially impressive feat considering that, unlike other critically revered bands, their trajectory has seen less of an evolution than a pure refinement of craft. You know when you hear a War on Drugs song – you might even know exactly what they were listening to while making it – but that doesn’t away any of its transcendent beauty: its steady, hypnotic pulse, anthemic choruses, and more than anything, a vague wistfulness floating through immaculate, oceanic soundscapes that spread out to the horizon. Theirs is the sound of a journey with no destination, of believing in hope but not quite being able to grasp it; it’s music about feeling stuck that’s committed to the act of driving forward even as it keeps staring back into the past. You know this, yet you dive in anyway, restlessly chasing the same impossible feeling.
Though Granduciel’s lyrics can sometimes veer into cliché, the music has a way of making it feel earned. You might be able to find a sea of inspirational quotes on Pinterest about how the journey is more important than the destination under the same tag that’s used to describe the band’s music – “road trip” – but no one can evoke both the emptiness and the grandeur of trying to live up to that old adage like the War on Drugs. On I Don’t Live Here Anymore, their fifth LP, we find him riding the winds and waves of change, often echoed in the band’s gorgeously layered instrumentals: “I’m on the run baby, and I don’t know why,” he proclaims on ‘Old Skin’; earlier, on a track literally called ‘Change’, he sings, “I’ve been living on the run, ’cause I can’t find/ That thing that holds and binds us tight.” Whatever turmoil it is he’s singing about – this is the kind of album that leans towards the personal but still prefers to leave things up to the listener’s imagination – the band’s dynamic, rich arrangements seem to respond directly to his lingering questions, guiding him every step of the way; ‘Change’ is, ironically, the song that most closely – and triumphantly – sticks to the War on Drugs formula.
But there is a slight shift in approach here, and it seems to serve the hero’s quest for “that thing that holds and binds us tight.” Following 2017’s Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is the War on Drugs’ sharpest, most immediate, and accessible effort yet, a description that normally wouldn’t fit an album in which most songs hover around the 5-minute mark. But the band sounds more energized than ever, whether capitalizing on catchy hooks more often than they let them get lost in a swirling haze, like on the infectious, magnificent title track, or harnessing the live-in-the-studio feel of the intimate, shimmering ‘Living Proof’. Granduciel’s voice is more front and center, too: “What have I been running from?” he ponders on the opening track, which remains as elusive as the place he’s heading towards. But boy, does he keep on running: a sense of nervous desperation seems to constantly accelerate the pace of these songs, threatening to shake their solid foundation, from the Radiohead-meets-Phil Collins moodiness of ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’ to the twitching guitars on ‘Victim’.
But of course, they hold it all together in miraculous fashion, because, again, everyone’s right there with him; just pay attention to the way Charlie Hall’s drumming invigorates ‘Old Skin’ around the halfway point. There’s still a heavy, exhilarating tension underlying these tracks, but it never drags them down, and it’s clearer than ever that the music is meant to be not only a propulsive force but an uplifting one. On ‘Wasted’, it’s as if the bright melodies are what twists Granduciel’s mood around, forcing him to admit, “Alright, I can’t resist,” as the song launches into the stratosphere. As massive as the album sounds, its fullness points to the band’s growth more than anything else, the kind of change that’s not explicitly talked about: their newfound focus, their tight chemistry, a shared understanding. “Is life just dying in slow motion/ Or growing stronger every day?,” he muses on ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’, and the answer’s right there in the music.