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.