Masterwork: Album of the Year 2014

Album of the Year 2014

The War on Drugs

Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)

Masterwork 11 of 25

1 Lost in the Dream

Although 2013 offered a higher number of big-name releases which had me in a tizzy at the time, for my money, 2014 ushered in a greater raft of less blatant, but more powerful albums. In the process of putting this list together, I’ve been able to fully appreciate the level of quality that was on display over the last twelve months. There were some truly incredible highs, from Annie Clark’s glorious transformation to Mac DeMarco’s neverending Top Gun solos, and a wealth of records which grew to sound utterly indispensable. The year was less showy than 2013, but much that it offered was nothing short of spectacular. However, when I came to choose my Album of the Year, there was absolutely no question about it. Spectacular as many of them have been, no other work came close to resonating with me as profoundly as The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream.

This isn’t one of the albums that I had set in my sights at the beginning of the year, but since its release in April, it has affected me indelibly. Lost in the Dream grew to resonate with me in a way I never predicted it would, hitting me straight in the heart, and stirring up both great joy and an aching, bittersweet sadness. I have found myself constantly turning back to it, and many of its moments are embroidered onto some of my most vivid memories of the year. And each time that I throw myself into it, I am wholly conscious that Adam Granduciel – the band’s nexus – went through hell to produce it.

Lost in the Dream is painfully personal and insular at its essence. After finishing touring duties for 2011’s Slave Ambient, Granduciel returned to Philadelphia to find his life had falling into total disarray around him. Relationships with his friends, family, and a significant other were crumbling apart, and he found himself seized by horrifying panic attacks which left him a nervous wreck, suffering sleepless nights and teetering on the brink of breaking down. This suffering filtered into the writing and recording sessions for his band’s third album, as over two agonising years of stop-start recording, Granduciel obsessively strove for his idea of perfection, pouring his heart and soul into his songwriting, and pushing his bandmates to the limits of their patience as he scrapped session after session.

The end result should sound stodgy, overworked: a hopeless mess wrought by physical and mental exhaustion. But somehow, it is absolutely immaculate, and invested with such a sincere and palpable heartache that every second rings with soulful frankness. Where Granduciel has turned inwards to survey personal emotional wreckage, his music has expanded outwards; the seismic haze of Slave Ambient swelling to something even more wondrous and triumphant, accommodating a staggering audience of hearts and minds in the process. The more Granduciel taps into his insecurity, the more moving the music becomes, as we listeners join his uphill struggle by mingling his turmoil with our own, pushing for catharsis in soaring, driving guitar music.

Although the influences are blatantly clear (Springsteen, Dylan, FM radio circa the ’80s), the angle at which Granduciel remoulds them is never obvious. The album skirts bluster by forging its peaks with technical precision, rather than shoving in needless frills here and there to tick “epic” boxes. Guitar solos that would otherwise reek of indulgence are utterly necessary, contributing to the ebb and flow of the album’s emotional current. Rather than utilised for heroics, the instrumental passages here express the straining emotions that Granduciel’s vocal range can’t cover. And that’s pretty impressive in of itself, because the man has plenty to get off his chest, and he does so with spine-tingling power. I can barely decipher what it is that he wails over ‘Red Eyes’, but the force of his emotional agony rushes through the hazy rush of the track, bursting from its depths to pierce the sky like a euphoric call to arms.

Lost in the Dream is perfectly paced and impressively mounted, with many of its songs taking flight multiple times, defying expectations to move to greater heights with each new sonic shift. It never ceases to send a pump of adrenaline coursing through me when these moments arrive: the wide-eyed, sky-kissing synths dovetailing with that triumphant guitar line in ‘Red Eyes’; the drums finally starting to really hammer during ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’; and the way ‘In Reverse’ shivers open to reveal the full-blooded band rallying around Granduciel’s graceful lament.

For an album which is led by one particular author (and possible control freak), it’s astonishing how instinctively dexterous the band’s team of musicians sound in full force. When ‘Under the Pressure’ sinks into a brass-led reverie, you can practically hear The War on Drugs gathering strength, gearing up to launch into something even more wonderful than what came before. The same tactic is used during ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’, which opens with a steadily moody groove, before swelling and swelling to a zenith of titanic size, and collapsing into the vast valleys of ‘Disappearing’. The sounds on this album are so physical that it’s no wonder that wide-open spaces are often evoked in its reviews. ‘The Haunting Idle’’s shivering, stark guitar sounds like it echoes up from a seabed, and as ‘In Reverse’ shimmers into life, the sound of lapping waves underscores Granduciel’s beautiful final composition. One horizon comes to an end, as another begins, and as the song fades away, I realise how completely transported I’ve been, listening to an hour of music which taps into something truly monumental.

Seeing the band perform live twice in 2014, I was able to see just how unpretentious and unselfish Granduciel is as a performer, and as a man. His graciousness and humble air completely belie the fact that he has put together something really significant, which has touched so many people at such an elementary level. This is an album that I will carry with me for a long time, with so many of my own memories and emotions now irrevocably mixed into it. From start to finish, Lost in the Dream fills me with wonder, and I am incredibly grateful to Granduciel and The War on Drugs for it.

Music is such a varied and malleable art form that it’s silly – at best – to blithely label an album as one’s favourite of all-time. Nevertheless, many listeners are at least conscious of the albums which are among their own personal favourites: albums which are worthy of that coveted title, if never directly named as such. I’m not going to claim that Lost in the Dream is my favourite album of all-time, but its effect is so completely compelling, that I am moved enough to consider it as within reach of that accolade.

I don’t mind you disappearing, when I know you can be found.

The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel: Catharsis from the jaws of suffering. (photo: diymag.com)

18/01/15

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Posted on January 18, 2015, in 25 Masterworks, End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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