Thinking of a Place

Live Drugs, The War on Drugs, 2020

My relationship to a band I love isn’t entirely solidified until I see them play live. I want to obsess over the band for a week before the show, I want to talk about possible setlists with the people who are going with me to the show, I want to chat with strangers standing near me at the show, I want to see what guitars are on stage.

More importantly, though, I think it’s obvious when a band is passionate about the music they make, and seeing that passion in person affirms my love of the music in some way. I saw The War on Drugs a few months ago, and they did exactly what I want a band to do at a live show. The songs weren’t rote copies of their studio counterparts, and it was clear Adam Granduciel and company cared deeply about the music they were playing. Live Drugs, their 2020 live album, presents (in abbreviated form–the album is only about 75 minutes, and the show I saw was about 2 hours 15 minutes) everything that makes The War on Drugs a live band that will keep someone who’s seen them a fan for a very long time.

The first thing that you notice while listening to Live Drugs is that everyone involved in The War on Drugs is extremely good at playing their instruments, and they’re particularly good at playing them together. There’s 7 people on stage at a War on Drugs show, but they are making 1 sound. Each member knows exactly when to provide ambience and color and exactly when to kick it into high gear. “An Ocean In Between the Waves” starts the album by showcasing drummer Charlie Hall’s propulsive nature, but Granduciel and the keyboard players are working in complete tandem with Hall, too. The keyboards sort of swirl around over the verses, and Granduciel’s voice goes from a mumble to a shout just as Hall starts hitting the snare a bit harder. Everything is timed so perfectly. I think it was a good choice to open the live album with “An Ocean” even though the song doesn’t normally open their shows. To someone unacquainted with the band, “An Ocean” lets you know immediately what The War on Drugs is about. They’re a locomotive train that rarely stops to refuel.

So, The War on Drugs is a 7-piece wrecking crew, sure, but it’s also very much Adam Granduciel’s Band. And, like many great rock singers, Granduciel is not very good at singing. Not if you think singing is about hitting notes. But Granduciel absolutely knows how to deliver his songs in a way that makes them compelling, which makes him a better vocalist than most in my eyes. Granduciel, in the Bob Dylan/Bob Weir spirit, does not deliver a line the same way twice, and thank god for that. If I wanted to hear him adhere note for note to the studio version of “Pain,” I would just listen to the studio version of “Pain.” Instead, Granduciel changes his vocal inflections like a pitcher changing arm slots. “Pain” has the line: “I met a man with a broken back/he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand.” On the studio version, “he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand” is all delivered at a lower register. On the Live Drugs version, “he had a fear in his eyes” is up higher, and the second half goes back down to the lower register. On the version of “Pain” I saw in DC, the whole line is delivered at a higher register. Which one sounds the best to my ears? It would probably depend on the day.

The War on Drugs pull another one of my favorite live band tricks, which is cover a song and play it so well it sounds like an original. The War on Drugs has no interest in playing a cover to elicit an easy singalong, either. When I saw them, they played “Born in Time,” a Bob Dylan song from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky, which many critics say is his worst. On Live Drugs, the band covers Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” a ballad that’s also the second least played song on Spotify from Zevon’s album Excitable Boy. Granduciel likes the songs, though, and that comes through loud and clear from the covers. Granduciel gives “Accidentally Like a Martyr” two weird, unsettling guitar solos and trades the Zevon song’s piano fills for twinkling guitar licks. What could have been a weak point on the live album instead both introduced me to a great song and set up a ridiculous three-song stretch to end the album of “Eyes to the Wind,” “Under the Pressure,” and “In Reverse.”

“An Ocean in Between the Waves” is a perfect encapsulation of The War on Drugs Live, but “Under the Pressure” is the pinnacle of War on Drugs Live. It’s a revelation what the band pulls off in 12 minutes. The obvious downside of a live album is that it’s not a video, so I guess it’s possible to miss the intensity that the band gives to “Under the Pressure.” But I think they know it’s their best live song, and they give it the attention and drama it deserves. The studio version features about 30 seconds of ambient build-up to the first piano riff; the live versions provide 3+ minutes of that build-up. Same goes for the break mid-song, which lasts about a minute in the studio and goes on for about 3 minutes live, as well. All this anticipation makes the moment when the drums come in feel infinitely more satisfying. Granduciel understands that too–on the last verse on live versions of “Under the Pressure,” he’s literally shouting over the rest of the band.

I think it’s extraordinarily easy to have a good time at a concert. I’ve enjoyed 99.9 percent of concerts I’ve been to. A lot of times, though, the fun I had at a show had more to do with the people I went with, the drinks I had, etc. With The War on Drugs, the music alone will keep me coming back regardless of the setting or the context.

Biding Your Time

Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes, 2017

When I first became a Fleet Foxes fan around 2013 or 2014 or whenever it was, I assumed I would never get to listen to a new Fleet Foxes album ever again. Lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold had left the music scene to study at Columbia University, and drummer Josh Tillman had left the band anyway to make music under his new moniker Father John Misty. Maybe other people felt differently, but I had no expectation of ever listening to a new Fleet Foxes album. It was a revelation to me, then, when I heard the single “Third of May/Odaigahara” in 2017, six years after the last Fleet Foxes release. Nevermind that “Third of May” is now one of my favorite songs; that I was hearing a new Fleet Foxes song at all was amazing.

That’s sort of the bar with a so-called “comeback” single, though, isn’t it? I won’t speak badly about other bands specifically, but plenty of artists have taken long hiatuses and then returned with singles that are received warmly primarily because everyone is happy to have them back. The real challenge is to successfully put out the comeback album. The comeback album is subject to much more scrutiny than the comeback single. The single is one thing, but the album is what people have been waiting for. There’s an unfair amount of pressure associated with a band releasing new music after a lengthy break. But the pressure is there nonetheless, and often the disappointment amongst an artist’s fanbase is palpable in the aftermath of a comeback.

I guess there are two options with the comeback album: a band could stick to their previous style, or they could pivot and explore different styles from their old material. Each option carries its own risk. The first option, The Continuation, runs the risk of sounding stale. Thanks for the new tunes, but you did this better eight years ago. The second option, The Deviation, runs the risk of seriously alienating a fanbase that has been waiting years to hear music they love from musicians they love. This band used to rock, man. What happened in the last eight years?

Which route did Fleet Foxes take with Crack-Up? Did Robin Pecknold get the gang back together and conjure up the Crosby, Stills, and Nash melodies of his youth or did he abandon the folk scene completely in favor of some uncharted territory? For the benefit of us all, he picked the lesser-known third option: Make Your Best Album By Combining Options 1 and 2.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me that Crack-Up was my favorite Fleet Foxes album. What attracted me to the band in the first place was the impeccable harmonies of course, but also what the songs themselves evoked: the breeziness of their self-titled and the baroqueness of Helplessness Blues called to mind the ’60s folk explosion, but more specifically the poppier side of the ’60s folk explosion. It’s quite easy to sing along to most songs on those first two albums.

Crack-Up doesn’t offer that immediacy; in a word, it is enormous. Most of the songs are comprised of multiple sections–a cryptic piano melody explodes into a sunny outro, or muttering turns to shouting and then back to muttering, or a massive epic concludes with an ambient soundscape. But for maybe one song, what you see is not what you get on Crack-Up. It took some getting used to as a fan of the hook-laden Fleet Foxes of the late 2000s and early 2010s. But the more I listen to Crack-Up, the better it gets.

It turns out there are tons of hooks on Crack-Up. It’s just a matter of finding them. That’s what I mean when I say Pecknold was able to combine Comeback Album Options 1 and 2: everything I loved about Fleet Foxes remained, but it was also very clear that six years had passed since Pecknold wrote music. And shouldn’t that be clear?

Comeback Album Option 3 is on full display right from the jump. Track 1, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” opens with a whisper. It’s actually difficult to hear Pecknold at all. No hooks to be found. The I Am All That I Need section transitions to the next section, which offers the incredible harmonized vocals Fleet Foxes is known for, but the hooks still aren’t there. The melody is too dense to stick in my head, at least. The harmonized vocals are interrupted several times by a muttering Robin, and then the song transitions again to a very quiet passage delivered over hushed acoustic guitar. Finally, four-and-a-half minutes in, Robin’s voice emerges in its recognizable form, and a hook arrives that could get stuck in anyone’s head. It only lasts about twenty seconds though–then the song goes back to the theme heard in Part 2, and closes on a sample of a high school choir singing Fleet Foxes’ biggest hit, “White Winter Hymnal.” Pecknold knows he’s been gone a while; his music has resonated enough to be sung in high schools. This is for sure a comeback, and Pecknold makes sure his listeners know it.

That was just Track 1. Dense doesn’t even begin to describe Crack-Up. If you think it sounds too dense, I don’t really blame you. It’s not a problem for me, though, for two reasons. First of all, despite all the interlocking passages, nothing feels unnecessary. Never does it feel like I’m waiting for the a passage to be over so I can listen to the good stuff. “On Another Ocean (January/June)” is a prime example. The second section, June, is one of my favorite moments on the album. Robin’s vocal lines are outrageous and play really well off the guitar lines that begin the section. The first section, January, is mysterious and piano driven, and there’s really not much to latch on to melody-wise. By writing lyrics that deal with winter vs. summer, though, Pecknold makes the January section essential. June’s hook would not be as appealing to me if it wasn’t introduced after the darkness of the January section.

The second reason the density doesn’t bother me is because Pecknold’s voice is inhumanly good. I have no problem saying he’s my favorite singer of the 21st Century, and that might actually understate how much I like his voice. The more cryptic passages make his voice sound that much better when it’s time for him to belt something out. On “Cassius,-,” the first section alternates between a verse and chorus that create a bunch of tension. When the song transforms into the second verse, Pecknold’s voice takes control, and the payoff (I walked home/no words to say/Cassius one month gone on his way) is one of the best parts of the album.

Pecknold’s vocals take control of the entirety of “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me,” and it’s no coincidence it’s the most popular song on the album. It’s a welcome departure from the rest of the record–most of these songs are designed to be as big as possible, but “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” was small enough to be the only Crack-Up song included in Pecknold’s solo acoustic live show A Very Lonely Solstice.

Here’s Pecknold himself talking about Crack-Up before its release: “I don’t want to change genres necessarily–I feel like there was a period from 2012-2016 where it would have been very culturally exhausting to release a ‘folk’ sounding album…I didn’t want to be working from a place of reaction but from a place of action and that was just impossible to do in those years considering what Fleet Foxes had come to mean and what had happened after.”

Pecknold’s otherworldly voice certainly helped him achieve Comeback Album Option 3, but it’s his self-reflection that I think pushed him over the edge on Crack-Up. Comeback albums aren’t any good when the artist is making music just because they haven’t in a while. Pecknold finally felt he had something to say in 2017. And ultimately, I would rather wait six years between incredible albums than one year between lackluster ones.