Every summer, there’s that song — the song that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll forever associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2014.
— the editors of the Talkhouse
You might be tempted to call Adam Granduciel the James Franco of indie rock. In addition to his work as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, bassist, pianist, drummer, harmonica-ist, engineer, and producer of the War on Drugs’ masterful new album Lost in the Dream, Granduciel is an accomplished visual artist who has studied painting and photography and continues to practice both. And, oh yeah, he also writes short stories. You get the feeling that if he were someday to make a movie, it would probably be really good.
Of course, the difference between these two guys is that Franco is a dilettante while Granduciel has an obsessive work ethic and a case of synesthesia. Listening to Lost in the Dream, you may find yourself lost in its surreal, painterly landscapes, which Granduciel built and demolished and rebuilt over the course of an 18-month-long recording process-cum-anxiety attack. In interviews Granduciel has described his quixotic attempts to capture, using a palette of sound, the “midnight vibe” that characterizes both Raymond Carver short stories and the depressive episodes of his own mid-thirties. Countless songs took shape during lonely late-night drives around Philly with, to quote The Boss, “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.” Color-wise, the album is black, blue, and tender as a bruise. Streaks of purple and red light shine through the windshield of Granduciel’s car around sunrise. The atmosphere is as dense with visions as it is with sound; waves in the ocean, undertows in the river, ridges, dark hills at the edge of town, and then, occasionally, a burning doorway, a set of keys, a light on in the yard.
My favorite song on the album, “Eyes to the Wind,” takes place in daylight, though. It’s the turning point, the moment on the album where the clouds lift, the atmosphere drops away and Granduciel speaks to us at his most direct. The vocals are perfectly clear, with no separation between intent and effect; the production cedes control to the songwriting, which is not literal but wide open — airy, free. Granduciel’s guitar recedes, making room for a pristine piano way up high in the mix. The part is simple but memorable; there are no extraneous notes. Only at the end does Granduciel allow himself a little solo, which quickly gives way to a sincere deployment of saxophone. It’s an exercise in maturity and restraint — at the end of ambition, a pale blue summer sky. Apparently, Granduciel wrote the song in four minutes in his kitchen.
But it isn’t that easy, of course. Granduciel’s voice aches like Dylan’s. The lyrics are about facing the wind head-on (with eyes open, I’d imagine). Staring straight at nothingness and still making that choice to let others in, even though it stings like hell. “I’m just a bit run down here at the moment,” Granduciel apologizes, while the truth is actually much more devastating: “There’s a stranger living in me.” That distance — between Granduciel’s inner truth and the “truth” he shows to the world — is here, ironically, at its slightest.
“Eyes to the Wind” is about letting go, although the recording of that piano part did take five months of Granduciel working with his keyboard player Robbie Bennett to get it just right. At a certain point, you just have to make a decision to be okay with yourself, and to let the wind take you down that road, although — no — because you never really know where it might lead. He might be a perfectionist, but it isn’t perfection that makes Granduciel happy. Acceptance has its own kind of magic.