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Lost in the Dream

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Critique

When Philadelphia-based purveyors of stripped-down, haunted rock perfection the War on Drugs came on the scene with their 2008 debut, Wagonwheel Blues, their sound perked up the ears of a new generation of soul searchers looking for a soundtrack. Summoning up the patron saints of FM radio rock, the band was constantly framed as an update to the wild-eyed sermons of Dylan and Springsteen or the summer-night abandon that Tom Petty perfected, all filtered through walls of decidedly indie guitar noise. Founding member Kurt Vile left the band to pursue his blooming solo path by the time of 2011's Slave Ambient, leaving key songwriter Adam Granduciel running the show completely for that album's well-received set of songs and heightened production. Work on follow-up third album Lost in the Dream began while the band was on tour in 2012, with the full process of writing, demoing, and recording stretching out over a 15-month period and employing five different studios in as many states. Instead of resulting in a piecemeal pastiche of discordant ideas, Lost in the Dream actually represents the most fully realized statement from the group thus far, with all ten songs gelling together with a sense of purpose and understated brilliance the band came close to before, but delivers in full here. Starting with the epic two-chord gallop of "Under the Pressure," Granduciel offers up song after song of incredibly restrained yet entirely engaged rock. The classic rock reference points led to a "blue-collar rock" labeling of the band's sound, and while there are undeniable callbacks to Petty, Dylan, and Springsteen here, as there were on earlier albums, the War on Drugs have come into their own with their sound. What comes on as simplistic or even predictable rock instrumentation always unfolds to reveal buried synth sounds, horn blurts, long ambient passages, and -- more impressively -- an unexpected emotional depth propping up the bare-bones songs. While "Burning" channels the same yelping frustration and working-class trudge of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," songs like "Red Eyes" and the gorgeous "An Ocean in Between the Waves" meld Jackson Browne's inward-looking sensitivity and Fleetwood Mac-like mysteriousness with an edgy depravity belonging to Granduciel alone. The songs are expansive, regardless of their tone, with the ten tunes sprawling out into almost an hourlong running time, leaving no stone unturned in their nuanced production and deceptively simple presentation. In this way, Lost in the Dream is the War on Drugs' Daydream Nation or Disintegration; lengthy distillations of similar themes result in wildly different threads of song, all connecting again in the end. It's a near flawless collection of dreamy vibes, shifting moods, and movement, and stands easily as Granduciel's finest hour so far. ~ Fred Thomas