Album Review: The War On Drugs' Slave Ambient - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

When it comes to heartland rock, critics invariably reach for the same metaphors: barren highways and beat-up cars, road trips unbounded by obligation. However—like the genre they’re so often used to describe—those images are only worth revisiting if there is nuance to be drawn.

Listening to The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient is like driving on an endless stretch of desolate highway, the kind of road that unspools into the horizon like an infinite silver thread. It’s a pleasant, placid trip, notable for its ruthless insistence on constant forward motion. The album is about the eloquence of grand spaces, the poetry to be found in marveling at and moving through them. The problem is that those sweeping skies are blue blanks; the vast swaths of sun-baked desert are mostly empty, and no matter how imposing or sublime, you get used to them. This isn’t an record full of trendy tricks or unexpected obstacles. It’s best for those who like their music big, untroubled, and relentless.

Slave Ambient opens with “Best Night,” a restless melody grounded by Adam Granduciel’s rough drawl. It’s as if Tom Petty decided to remix his full-blooded Americana-rock with a twinkling soundtrack. “Best Night” is meandering, but airily so, the sounds blurring and rolling into each other, fading into a starry conclusion. “Brothers” is all burnished hooks and an echoing Dylan-esque croon; Granduciel’s voice is in many ways the album’s center, anchoring it to a steady, if languid, beat. Sometimes, his nasally delivery starts to grate, stretching single syllables into three halting ones, as on “Blackwater” and “It’s Your Destiny.” “I Was There” slows things down, a lick unfurling like a bluesy flag behind Granduciel’s pleading vocals: “Come on, baby. Let me in.”

The songs unwind in a straightforward fashion. They’re very much expected (there’s even a “reprise”), as if each song were a sequel to the one before it. Slave Ambient is no snaking, unstable thing: it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be. It feels like the record could go on and on indefinitely, even after the last track coasts into silence. The War On Drugs’ achievement is that they’ve crafted music that’s both timeless and immediate.

In “Come To The City,” Granduciel sings, “I’ve been rambling. I’m just drifting” and this is indicative of Slave Ambient’s failings as well as its strengths. The record really does ramble—Granduciel and company are freewheeling through the wide-open west—but rambling is both about freedom and a lack of concision, about being loose and about losing sight of the subject. Slave Ambient, then, is a crossroads of sorts. It’s up to the listener to decide if they’ve got road trip fatigue or if they want to go along for the ride.

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