Why is it their worst? Their bloody-nosed heartland rock has never been closer – sonically, at least – to The Killers, and has certainly never been closer to peak-era Bryan Adams, to the point that many of the songs here (if Granduciel’s voice were removed) are virtually indistinguishable from many of their peers, influences and contemporaries. The bad thing about this is that it virtually strips them of any and all identifiable features that made their work so endearing in the first place. Granduciel is a fantastic songwriter, but the pathetic fallacy of his rainy production always served the albums well. Here, the album sparkles where it used to merely shine.
Why is it their best? Well, for the very same reasons. This feels like a band – a project? – reaching the very outer limits of their scope and potential. The War On Drugs have never been about expanding the borders of rock ‘n’ roll. Hell, Granduciel has made a career off doing his level best to avoid reinventing the wheel, but playing that damn wheel as well as it’s ever been played. Unlike ex-bandmate Kurt Vile, who has tempered his weirder impulses with simpler songwriting over time, Granduciel’s songwriting has always remained pretty consistent, it’s just the production choices that have changed. His magnum opus, Lost In The Dream, will forever serve as testament to his incredible ear for a hook, but also his once-in-a-generation sonic set-dressing capabilities.
What about the songs themselves? Nothing here seems out of place, which is a stark contrast to their last record A Deeper Understanding, which was so bloody brilliant because it took its damn time getting to where it needed to go (ADU is around a quarter of an hour longer than this one).
The highlights and key tracks are in plentiful supply. “Victim” is crystalline and propulsive. “Wasted” is shameless Springsteen worship. “Occasional Rain” and “Change” both split the difference between U2 and REM, resulting in curiously Deerhunter-esque final results. “Harmonia’s Dream” (the nod to German electronic pioneers Harmonia is charming), is a blood-pumping meat feast from the piercing synths to the positively obscene guitar pyrotechnics. “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes”, the emotional bedrock of the album, offers Dylan-esque sincerity, and “Old Skin” is about as close to a dictionary-definition heartland rocker as you’re likely to hear this year. By the time the album’s done, one thing is certain, and that’s that you’ve just listened to a flawless album.
The problem with flawless albums is that we, the listeners, as human participants in the art of music consumption, find perfection a little alienating. Tom Petty’s closest-to-perfection album is Full Moon Fever, but the majority of his fans prefer the rougher, sepia-toned hue of Wildflowers or the bombastic barnstormers of his youthful, aggressive Damn the Torpedoes. Bruce Springsteen’s most perfect record is undoubtedly Tunnel of Love, but we prefer the chinks in the armour on Darkness on the Edge of Town or the sweaty-browed horniness of Born to Run. I Don’t Live Here Anymore is The War On Drugs’ most perfect album, and for that reason it’s probably their worst. But also their best.