I readily concede that at this melancholy moment there’s a greedy desire to hear echoes of Tom Petty just about everywhere. But, whenever I now cycle back to A Deeper Understanding, the new album from the War on Drugs, I hear little shimmers of Petty’s reflected sensibility all over the place. The album’s first track, “Up All Night,” might open with a electronic hummingbird shiver that seems nicked from a vintage Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, but it quickly gives in to a loping, keening melody that is like an even more relaxed version of Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Elsewhere, “Pain” has the balladic ruminating and “Nothing to Find” has some of the highway reverberation I associate with the dearly departed rock legend.
Acknowledging those comparisons upfront seems only prudent, since they’ll happen anyway and will be conspicuous no matter how they’re deployed. The invocations are inevitable because I can’t listen to the War on Drugs without my mind tumbling into a undulating mass of other artists, each new musical reminiscence arriving and departing with the fleeting suddenness of a bursting bubble. When I wrote briefly about the Philadelphia band’s previous album, Lost in the Dream, I conceded my bafflement in trying to settle on an assessment of what the music contained therein sounded like to me. “Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey,” I wrote, helplessly. The new album sounds nothing like that. Except when it does. Once again, it changes day to day.
In less certain, less capable hands, the tonal and spiritual fluidity would come across as indication of soulless, visionless music. A Deeper Understanding couldn’t be further from that. Chief songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel builds tracks of strident sonic exploration, like a Flaming Lips record, but aspiring to the polished discipline adopted by legacy rockers when they were given the keys to state of the art recording studios in the nineteen-eighties. “In Chains” has signs of Jackson Browne’s gentle agitation, “Strangest Thing” could have retrieved from Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, and the sprawling “Thinking of a Place” is one whole side of an old LP all on its own, cooing and coaxing toward achy poignancy.
Amazingly, this tall stack of the familiar doesn’t tally up to a finished product that moans with derivativeness. Rich with the past and crackling with the easy confidence of an artist with a restless eye to the future, A Deeper Understanding feels fiercely original in its commitment to a certain true-heartedness that used to come standard on rock ‘n’ roll albums. I’m not sure if any of the predecessors of the War on Drugs feel as though they’ve passed the torch along to them, but it doesn’t matter. A Deeper Understanding shows they’ve got a firm grasp on it, and they’re carrying it proudly.