The War on Drugs

Lost in the Dream

(Secretly Canadian; 2014)

By Conrad Amenta | 26 March 2014

There’s a song by Built to Spill called “You Were Right,” which goes:

You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold
You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind
You were right when you said we’re all just bricks in the wall
And when you said manic depression’s a frustrated mess

It’s one of Built to Spill’s better known songs, from one of their better known albums, Keep it Like a Secret, which came out in 1999 when I was 19 years old and I either didn’t know or didn’t care about what Doug Martsch, or anyone else for that matter, was going on about. The band was at the height of their spindly powers, sprouting melodic brambles of guitar over Martsch’s everyman warble, but all I thought at the time, in my wisdom, was that the song seemed gimmicky. Was “dust in the wind” that Bob Seger song from Forrest Gump? All I heard was a reference to a reference to a reference, like mirrors turned to face one another, reflecting back into infinitesimal nothingness. In other words, when I was 19, “You Were Right” just seemed to restate the old po-mo truism that our experience of a piece of work can’t help but almost always be filtered through our experience of another, older piece of work, and I wanted something new.

Eventually, as I grew older, I started listening to music more closely, letting down my twin defenses of adolescent sarcasm and misplaced anger. I let songs settle in. In my mid-20s, a song like “You Were Right” built up cultures like little feudal kingdoms in my brain. They still seemed to reference something, but the depth of that thing was unknown to me. Where once I might dismiss the derivativeness of reference, I instead began to defer to a greater historical context I could hardly understand. “You Were Right” seemed to imply that there was a time I didn’t know, and couldn’t ever know intimately. Suddenly I didn’t need something to be unquantifiably new to think long and hard about that thing.

“You Were Right” is an old song, now—both in that it’s 15 years old, and that it seeks to evoke, and thereby be more like, the old songs it’s referencing. It is crushingly, unrelentingly sad; Martsch’s primary lyrical contributions to “You Were Right” were the refrain: “You were wrong when you said / Everything’s gonna be alright.” These old guys were right when they said everything sucks. You were wrong when you tried to comfort me.

“You Were Right” then suggests that rock music at its best—as much if not more than its rock-‘n’-roll-all-night-and-part-y-ev-er-y-day, hot-for-teacher, school’s-out-for-summer, she’s-my-cherry-pie stupidities—gave us a sadness we can still luxuriate in and build an identity around. Rock music, in its more poetic moments, gave to us what restless Kerouac found in jazz.

Classic rock—what we used to call “rock ‘n’ roll” before we appended that humiliating and dismissive qualifier to it—was important because it was agitated, unsatisfied, depressed, and angry. Classic rock pushed up against the dehumanization of industrialized work and industrialized war, which is to say, against the weight of its age. Classic rock, for all of its boneheaded maleness and self-centeredness, its Neanderthal impulse to canonize stupidity and its byproducts of misogyny and substance abuse, sought, at least in its best moments, to recover the importance of the individual in the face of the individual’s almost certain insignificance.

All of this to say that “You Were Right” works because it recovers, a little, the notion that our forebears grasped at something, and talked about it, in ways we can still use today. You don’t need to care about Kansas, a ridiculous cartoon of a band if there ever was one, to appreciate that mercurial moment when Kansas (of all the friggin’ people) captured transcendent anxiety and bottled it in “Dust in the Wind.”

What I’m getting at is that the War on Drugs’ wonderful new album Lost in the Dream is sort of ridiculous in the context of 2014, and totally classic in the Classic Rock sense, which may go some distance to explaining why when I talk to people about it they either totally love it or say something along the lines of “I didn’t know you were into Dad Rock.” It’s a deeply sad album, but it’s sad in a way that pushes back at what makes us sad, and finds purpose in it. I mean, just listen to Adam Granduciel’s whoops and hollers throughout this profoundly melancholy and achingly beautiful album. It’s like he’s tapped into the universal battery and is being jolted again and again.

I say it’s a bit ridiculous in the context of 2014, though, because we’re faced with the surreal truth that the only thing that separates a gushingly honest album like Lost in the Dream and a joke band like the Darkness, who exaggerate the same classic rock tropes, is a matter of degrees and writerly intention. Or at least I, nominally standing in as the critic here, am faced with that surreality, in that I’m supposed to seek out and celebrate the new, and yet find more meaning in this very old album than in much else these days.

I should call Lost in the Dream derivative, which it is, and be done with it. Lead and principle songwriter Granduciel writes in anachronisms, arranging steady, thoughtfully constructed rock ‘n’ roll songs like antique furniture around a musty house, navigating a torturous recording process at a time exemplified by the web-only mixtape, by bands who have synergistic marketing and brand-building strategies but no record deal, by the fact that the physical production of albums is sustained through the sheer force of will of collectors and by producers who don’t seem to mind losing a lot of money. And yet, Lost in the Dream is an album—stunningly, stubbornly—about, and pretty much only about, the way Granduciel feels.

Lost in the Dream is the sound of the individual alone with his relative insignificance as an industry crumbles around him, a beautiful artifact of the music industry’s waning days. It’s a eulogy to the individual years after the battle between the individual and the aggregate was fought and lost.

What are we to do with this ghost?

Lost in the Dream taps into a songwriting language with which many of us indie rock fans are, consciously or unconsciously, familiar. Just as Arcade Fire brought Springsteen and Bowie and Byrne up on stage with them—cool moments, no doubt, that were also a little bit tragic for their reminder that even these shadows of their former, pop selves were unlikely to mean what they once did, let alone Arcade Fire ever meaning what they once did—so too can you imagine Granduciel painting his feelings in the broad strokes of the social historian and rock personality. He’s locating his sense of self at the center of the universe of this album and, by extension of what this album references, at the center of the rock music universe itself. (This is also, perhaps, an indirect way of saying that Lost in the Dream has huge, star-making potential for Granduciel in the same way The Suburbs [2010] did when it won Arcade Fire a Grammy.)

So why does Lost in the Dream work, and work so well, and why do I think the album is more than the sum of its derivations? Well, it works on a technical level because it’s meticulously constructed and aesthetically beautiful, applying the kind of cinematic scope that many others have rightly compared to Arcade Fire. And in that, it applies the kind of wide-angle lens to its songwriting that is unusual today. That Lost in the Dream should come out now, with all its stubborn patience and with none of a major label’s political or economic cover, should be enough to get our attention. Granduciel’s fussy and uncompromising approach to recording the album has been well documented elsewhere, so that the album maintains any freshness or immediacy is truly something to admire.

But more than that, Lost in the Dream has the soul-weariness and the drive to catch the attention of anyone whose ear has been trained by classic rock radio. “Red Eyes” is the kind of thing you’d hear in hockey arenas and on Chevy commercials, but also in backroom bars and through the iPod headphones of the most reclusive scenesters. Also, I agree with everything you’ve already read about “An Ocean In Between the Waves,” which manages somehow to be totally evocative of Tom Cochran in his Red Rider years and still listenable in the extreme. The album unfolds like a chapter from East of Eden, self-contained with distinctive detail and yet totally evocative of the whole, how a long drive through picturesque landscapes can be as exhaustive and exhausting as America itself.

The tableaux is at once totally familiar and deeply personal. Much of the time, Granduciel’s vocals are obscured behind various effects. (Mostly reverb, it seems, whose effect is nostalgic in much the same way that Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound attempts the effect of nostalgia, which is to say, as a central aspect of the artist’s songwriting appeal.) When a line floats up through the layers, it’s usually autobiographical in some non-specific way that makes it immediately relatable. Something like “Eyes to the Wind,” or “Disappearing” seems deeply felt, and yet totally ambiguous—much the same way, it should be noted, as “Dust in the Wind” is at once about everybody and about nobody in particular.

What I’m left with, several listens through, is that Lost in the Dream is essential—not timelessly so, but essential for us right now, in 2014, as not the album we asked for, and not the album we deserved, but the album we needed: that grand idea of what the album can be, full-hearted and sincere. In an age where cynicism and sarcasm reign supreme, Lost in the Dream is inspired. It does much more than “You Were Right” does, because it doesn’t point to songs that were transcendent and beautiful in their ability to capture the spirit of an age, but attempts to capture that same spirit and make it meaningful to us, here, these decades later, when we need a little inspiration. It’s destitute, but boundless with an unsnuffable energy. It’s invincible in the face of everything. It’s the struggle incarnate, without an explicit expression of a political agenda or a cerebral, existential quandary.

So, yes, after these words and roundabout ways of getting to the point, I’m pinning my review on a feeling. Despite its big, dumb rock ‘n’ roll template and primary color lyrics, albums like Lost in the Dream can be as restorative of faith in old metaphors and storytelling tropes. Albums like Lost in the Dream remind us that sometimes the ways we talk about how things are wrong can feel so, so right.