by Mark Guarino
The War on Drugs didn’t end with Nancy Reagan. A Philadelphia band resurrected the screaming headline and adopted it for its name, which it has worn proudly for six years.
“Even before I had a band, I wanted to have a band named War on Drugs,” says Adam Granduciel, 35. “I love seeing it on the front of the record. I don’t know exactly why.”
Sounding more resilient than the actual government policy, the War on Drug’s third album, “Lost in the Dream” (Secretly Canadian), plays on a much bigger field and is socked with soul. While the band’s earliest music sounded like more of a collective, sparing room for each band member’s ideas, the new music shows a band at new heights. The emphasis on using the studio as an instrument creates a bed of sounds for each song — horns, a glaze of synthesizers, echoing guitars — that spruce up the band’s primary strength as rock craftsmen. Opener “Under the Pressure” and “Burning” are both synth-rock beauties emerged in an epic sound that is not far removed from Roxy Music or The Killers.
The sound is a departure from its earliest roots, when it wore a more primal rock sound on its sleeve. Granduciel says the evolving sound was not planned. “The band became something I never expected it would be,” he says. The continual touring locked together the current band members bassist David Hartley and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Bennett, which not only meant everyone became better musicians, but it also raised the stakes: “It forced me to take myself a little more seriously — It became less about the recording process and more about the songwriting.”
The renewed discipline reflected Granduciel’s role as the chief leader of the band, which he started years back with co-founder Kurt Vile, who amicably exited after the band’s 2008 debut to fully pursue his solo career, which he had been jockeying back and forth with the band. Vile’s influence was profound, Granduciel says: “I never met someone who totally knew what he wanted and, after spending so much time together, that started to bead off me.”
Granduciel grew up outside Boston but arrived in Philadelphia in 2003 after spending time in Oakland, Ca., trying to find musical collaborators. “I was working in restaurants at night and wasn’t meeting people. At some point I realized I was working on all of this music but wasn’t sharing it with anybody,” he says.
He returned to the east coast and, within five months, connected with musicians in Philadelphia who would soon become livelong musical partners. “For the first time I started actually contributing to a musical community, which I what I wanted to do. I had no home before,” he says.
Released this week, the new War on Drugs songs emerge from swampy mood that sounds best appreciated at midnight. The influences are not surprising: Bob Dylan’s epic and dark “Time Out of Mind” album from 1997; guitar bands from Manchester, UK from the 1980s; The Cure’s “Three Imaginary Boys,” their debut from 1979; and “Time of the Last Persecution,” the second heralded album by British folk singer Bill Fay.
“That blew me away. It’s the emotion of the record that is great. The sound is as close to [Neil Young’s] ‘Tonight’s the Night,’ but not as dark,” he says.
With this album, the band arrives in Chicago Sunday, playing Metro, its biggest stage yet in this city. “My most anticipated show of this tour,” Granduciel says.
The War on Drugs headlines Metro 9 p.m. Sunday with Mark McGuire and White Laces. $19/$21. metrochicago.com.
Here’s a video for the new War on Drugs song “Red Eyes”: