There’s a certain kind of brain damage that sets in when you’ve been a professional culture writer for many years. You find yourself thinking constantly in terms of lists — how will this thing I’m currently playing fit into the inevitable retrospective I’ll be tasked with writing at the end of the year?
This process is heightened whenever the year happens to end with “9.” Not only are you thinking about the year-end list, you’re also ruminating on the decade. In fact, who cares about single years when you can define an entire era?
I feel like this explains why I’ve been fixated lately on Lost In The Dream, the breakthrough 2014 album by The War On Drugs, which happens to turn five years old on March 18. Lost In The Dream is one of my favorite albums of the 2010s — I can remember when I heard it for the first time (early December 2013, via an advance promo stream), I doubt I have listened to any album more (with the possible exception of Kurt Vile’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze), and I suspect Lost In The Dream has most influenced what I look for in other albums.
We all have artists that we feel especially bonded with because we watched them grow up. The War On Drugs is like that for me. I remember connecting with them immediately in 2008 after hearing “Arms Like Boulders,” a Dylanesque standout from WOD’s debut LP, Wagonwheel Blues. The band’s next release, 2010’s Future Weather EP, was even better, and the positive if relatively modest reception from critics allowed The War On Drugs to tour wider and further than before.
I saw them for the first time in Madison, Wisconsin, the first act on a bill opening for Destroyer on the Kaputt tour, several months before the release of 2011’s Slave Ambient. I stood in the front row with a handful of other people, transfixed by future Slave Ambient standouts like “Baby Missiles” and “Brothers” (both of which were previewed in embryonic form on Future Weather). I loved them, though I had fallen for enough indie bands by then to feel knee jerk pessimism about the War On Drugs ever finding a larger audience.
Lost In The Dream, however, made the War On Drugs’ ascendency seem like more of a sure thing. By then, Arcade Fire had pivoted from the booming arena rock maximalism of their first three records, creating a void that Lost In The Dream was fortuitously well-suited to fill. I wrote as much in an enthusiastic profile of the band that was posted three weeks before the album was released. After years of lingering in the indie rock shadows, The War On Drugs suddenly had expert timing.
When I interviewed Adam Granduciel — the band’s singer, primary songwriter, and acknowledged mastermind — in early 2014, he didn’t sound like a guy who had just made the best album of his life. He seemed a little broken. If anything, he was relieved to have finally put Lost In The Dream behind him.
The story of the album’s gestation has since become part of its legend. Granduciel, who formed The War On Drugs with Vile in 2005, had spent most of the first decade of his music career on the road. “My twenties were, in the best ways possible, a total f*cking blur,” Granduciel told me. “I traveled the US probably like 47 times in 10 years.” But when he settled into his home studio in Philadelphia — you see him standing in the house on the cover of Lost In The Dream — to make a new War On Drugs record, all he had was time to work and rework songs. In the process, without the constant distractions of tour life, he discovered that he was prone to anxiety and depression.
For more than a year, he cycled through different versions of Lost In The Dream‘s tracks. One of my favorite songs, the rampaging guitar showcase “An Ocean In Between The Waves,” progressively got worse and worse to Granduciel’s ears, devolving from the spare, haunting demo he recorded 14 months earlier. Just two weeks before he turned Lost In The Dream in to his label, Secretly Canadian, he scrapped almost all of the work he did with the band, and started again with the original demo.
Another pivotal song, the stately “Eyes To The Wind,” also came together relatively late in the game. Granduciel’s instinct to bury his vocals in waves of noise and layers of instrumentation played against the emotional directness the song required. Eventually, at the last minute, he was persuaded to put his vocals higher in the mix.
“I started going off the rails a little bit in my own head, getting a little too sucked in,” Granduciel explained wearily.
His state of mind naturally seeped into the album, which on slower tracks like “Suffering” and “Disappearing” floats along in a spooky, lonely daze that sounds like how depression feels. While Granduciel’s songwriting draws on forward-facing classic rock, Lost In The Dream is projected inward, resulting in a kind of arena rock of the mind, in which the cheap seats are perched in the far reaches of the subconscious, where fear, doubt, and demons lurk.
Once Lost In The Dream was released, comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty quickly became staples of articles and reviews written about The War On Drugs. (It was also reminiscent of less fashionable vestiges of FM rock, like Dire Straits and solo Don Henley records, which some critics mentioned as a means of discrediting Lost In The Dream. Though in the end it just made me hear Dire Straits and solo Don Henley records with fresh ears.)
As a The New York Times headline from 2017 put it, critics tend to view them as a band that plays “rock and roll the old fashioned way.” But I don’t think that’s quite right. Play Lost In The Dream next to Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Damn The Torpedoes and the distance between the spotless, Jimmy Iovine sheen of those classic rock warhorses and The War On Drugs is pretty gaping. Noticing that distance, in fact, is entirely the point. It’s what makes Lost In The Dream one of the emblematic albums of 2010s rock.
This is the first decade since rock and roll’s inception in the ’50s in which emerging bands who draw on the bedrock sounds of the genre have virtually no chance of achieving mass pop stardom. When the War On Drugs signed to Atlantic Records in 2015, in the wake of Lost In The Dream, Iovine himself commented that the band “should be gigantic.” And yet pop, for numerous structural as well as cultural reasons, has little use for a band like The War On Drugs. That archetype was put to bed around the time that the Strokes faded into oblivion.
What’s striking about Lost In The Dream is how it implicitly acknowledges that reality. It’s an album inspired formally by the denim-clad icons of FM rock’s glorious past, bursting at the seams with outsized synth hooks and improvised, rafters-seeking guitar solos. But sonically, Lost In The Dream is murkier, cloudier, dreamier, than ’70s and ’80s rock. It sounds like a Springsteen album that’s been dubbed on a Maxell tape, and then warped slightly after sitting for decades in a musty car glove compartment. Because that’s how those of us who grew up with classic rock culture as a passed-down, second-hand cultural heirloom first discovered this music. It’s not something that ever seemed shiny and brand new — you had to dig it out of the detritus of the past, wipe away the uncool dad-rock baggage, and settle in with it as a secret that other people your age would never understand, that something so ubiquitous and even corny could speak to you like nothing else.
(One of The War On Drugs’ other members, Dave Hartley, once told me that Granduciel and Vile, back when they were close collaborators, would get high and listen to Born In The USA and the first Suicide album on a loop. I don’t think any music writer could come up with a better descriptor for how their music sounds.)
In retrospect, my predictions of greatness for The War On Drugs stemmed entirely from my own projection. The truth is that Lost In The Dream was the record that I was waiting for — assuming that others might care was a rather grandiose act of faith on my part. Lost In The Dream didn’t merely boast great songs or a familiar heartland rock aesthetic that fit perfectly with my tastes, it was the rare record made by someone who seemed to hear music in the exact same way I did. It was as if I had dreamt Lost In The Dream myself, for years before I actually heard it.
Let me explain what I mean: Recently, I noticed how many War On Drugs songs resemble U2’s “With Or Without You,” from 1987’s The Joshua Tree, one of the first rock albums I ever loved as a kid. “With Or Without You” is lyrically vague, with imagery about storms and shores, though anyone can glean that it’s a song about searching for something you will probably never find. Musically, it’s anchored by a mile-wide bassline and a mix of drum machines and live drums, providing a solid bed from which soaring guitar theatrics will inevitably launch in the back half of the song.
Like you — like everybody — I’ve heard “With Or Without You” 100,000 times. I’ve heard it in gas stations, grocery stores, parking lots, and casinos. It’s hard to feel like the song “belongs to me” like it did when I was 11. But Lost In The Dream reclaimed it for me — consumer culture stole “With Or Without You,” and The War On Drugs stole it back.
For most people, the pay off in “With Or Without You” comes about two-thirds in, when Bono bellows toward the heavens while the Edge turns it up to 11. (This is the part of the song that scored a crucial emotional climax from the series finale of The Americans.) But the part that slayed me as an 11-year-old — and still slays me now — comes right after that, during the coda, when the Edge strums mournfully over Adam Clayton’s murmuring bass, like he’s signaling a well of psychic pain that he’s holding back rather than expressing full-on. That part of “With Or Without You” was the first music that made my chest hurt when I was in grade school. And it’s precisely the zone where Lost In The Dream lives. A deep, ecstatic melancholy that is half-remembered and fully felt.