The War on Drugs‘ latest single is, like “Strangest Thing” and “Holding On” before it, an exercise in restraint. Many have likened the band’s signature sound to a sort of muted classic rock, which is somewhat misleading: their music is not imitation of, or even homage to, the old rock ‘n’ roll sound. It’s too tortured by loss to be commemorative, and its pervasive emotion is not nostalgia so much as regret. If Dan Auerbach‘s and HAIM‘s recent records were pleasant but empty throwbacks, The War on Drugs’ new album seems to be appraising the past instead of cashing in on it.
On “Pain,” after all, the past is something confusing and incoherent: even the guitar solo that comes tearing out of the song’s steady drumbeat is more vertiginous than glorious, the song of a man who doesn’t know when or where he is. Adam Graduciel sings, “Am I moving back in time? / Am I standin’ still?” The lack of a clear answer makes it all the better, an acknowledgment that the truest retrospection is not to relive the past but to reckon with it. A Deeper Understanding is due out August 25 on Atlantic.