From the late ’70s into the ’80s, two of the most vibrant strands of American popular music were heartland rock and the American underground. These two traditions were very distinct, and there was no overlap. The former, the more mainstream of the two, was the domain of rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, as well as acts like Bruce Hornsby. These artists and bands often employed keys and the saxophone, although they were primarily guitar-driven.
The American Underground evolved from the fast, aggressive, stripped-down attack of punk into the no-wave sound of bands like Sonic Youth and the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine. Distortion was a key feature of their sound, and they tended to eschew large arrangements, often sticking to guitar, bass, and drums.
Formed in Philadelphia in the early ‘oughts by Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs combines these two disparate traditions, with a heavily guitar-based sound that uses lots of distortion.
The War on Drugs surround those distorted guitars with many of the elements you’d see in a heartland or roots rock band, like keys and sax. TWOD earned early buzz for their EP, A Barrel Full of Batteries, which was followed by the LP Wagonwheel Blues. Eventually, Vile would leave the band (establishing his own acclaimed solo career), and other personnel changes would follow, with Granduciel becoming the dominant figure in the band). Greater critical acclaim would follow, including a Grammy in 2017 for Best Rock Album for A Deeper Understanding.
Like their heartland forebears, their lyrical sensibility owes primarily to the bard of Minnesota, Bob Dylan. During the set at The Anthem on Feb. 2, their lone cover of the evening came during their encore, when they played Dylan’s “Born in Time.”
In one respect, The War on Drugs differs from both traditions they draw on. Both heartland rockers and American Underground bands play tight, compact songs. TWOD prefer to stretch out their tunes: their main set, which consisted of 14 songs, lasted about 90 minutes; their 3-song encore lasted 30. In this respect, TWOD are closer to the jammed-out psychedelia of My Morning Jacket.
Watch the official music video for “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” by The War on Drugs on YouTube:
Last year, TWOD released their latest album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore. The record was marked by the band’s most accessible production and some of their most immediate songs. The setlist Wednesday night was heavy on tracks from the LP, opening with one of the slower, more thoughtful numbers, “Old Skin.” The setlist also included the elusive, drum-machine driven “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” which clearly borrows elements from Talk Talk and Phil Collins, and the driving rocker “Harmonia’s Dream,” as well as opening track “Living Proof,” the reverb-rich title cut, and “Victim.”
The setlist included a number of old favorites as well: “Brothers” from 2010’s Future Weather, “Come to the City” from 2011’s Slave Ambient, and several tracks from 2014’s Lost In The Dream (“Under The Pressure,” “Red Eyes,” “Eyes to the Wind,” “An Ocean Between the Waves,”) and 2017’s A Deeper Understanding (“Pain,” “Strangest Thing.”)
Here are some photos of The War on Drugs performing at The Anthem in DC on Feb. 2, 2022. All photos by Ben Eisendrath for IMP.