The War on Drugs latest outing Slave Ambient is an apt title. Awash in a constant sound of sustain, most of the album is a bit like one of those friends who feels so uncomfortable with silence that they have to continually say something, anything. The lack of empty spaces works on some songs and not on others. "Baby Missile" opens things up (as it did on their EP Future Weather) and with it's happy beat, droning organ, jumpy lyrics, harmonica swells and fade out, it still sounds like it is embedded in an 80's movie where Patrick Swayze would leap and dance with his shirt unbuttoned. Adam Granduciel has always had a voice print that shares some of the same shapes as Dylan, Petty and The Boss and in "Brothers" he languishes on his words so much that you wonder if there is a Zimmerman somewhere in his family tree. It is sparkly and earnest but sets a familiar and somewhat forgettable pattern. "Come to the City" is a sweeping, stadium sized wanderlust of a song, "lead me back to the place I'm from past the farms and debris"- full of scratchy film memories, a "Heroes" like bass line and Springsteen like "Whooo hooo's".
Slave Ambient is not all blue collar fury. "Black Water" (my favorite song on the album) is less washed in sound. Granduciel's voice has never sounded richer and the song takes time to grow and warmly wrap you up in it's story, "Remember me when you dissolve in the rain- when the rivers run dry through the cold mountain range - when you turn to the name you invented to keep your identity safe from the smell of defeat". Alas, some of the instrumental compositions sound more like filler especially the anthem like "City Reprise" and the 28 second "Come for it" but "The Animator" does stand on it's own as an interesting soundscape. The War on Drugs unabashedly embrace some standard rock conventions (both musically and lyrically) and like "Baby Missile", the last track on Slave Ambient, "Your Love is Calling My Name" again pile drives like a song in Footloose or some other 80's movie where the hero breaks out in dance. Granduciel even drawls out, "It's gonna be alright..... yeah." To the cynics among us, some of what The War on Drugs is creating can sound so embedded in Americana rock traditions as to sound formulaic and to those of us who are more pure of heart, their music soars with both light and dark undertones and is just plain and simply... uplifting.
Hell... maybe it is gonna be alright.