Perfect Imperfection: Ten years later, The War On Drugs’ Wagonwheel Blues is the masterful sound of running on instinct
A tape player winds to a start. Five drum machine hi-hat hits tap out, sequentially. Three notes chime on a glockenspiel. Somebody takes a breath.
These are the most surprising things you’ll hear upon listening to The War on Drugs‘ Wagonwheel Blues ten years after its debut — and they all occur in opening moments of “Arms Like Boulders.” The song abruptly adjusts course into the soaring squeal of a harmonica, fervent acoustic guitar strums, and barreling drums as they converge into an anthem of Kerouacian observations and things felt while driving up California’s arterial highway 101. The lyrics are stream-of-consciousness and pretty far out, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s consider that non-sequitur patchwork of sounds at the top. It is literally only two seconds long, but it speaks volumes about the band that The War on Drugs was ten years ago and the band it is today.
Those opening moments are at once mind-bending and psychedelic — the jarring sense of time slowed down, then accelerated, that a whirring tape machine settling into the proper speed conveys — as much as it is rooted in formal structure — the rigid meter of those hi-hats — and blissed out in ethereal beauty — the atmospheric tone of those ambient chimes. Those sonic elements have all been embellished upon over the course of The War on Drugs’ career, and they all remain intact today, but there’s one more piece that is different. The way the sound opens in media res; the way it gives you one sense (albeit a jumbled one) of the music you’re about to hear; the way you’re suddenly swerved in a completely different direction. The element of disruption.
In the years since, The War on Drugs’ frontman Adam Granduciel has become known as a tinkerer, a studio perfectionist, a sculptor of sound (not an inappropriate metaphor, considering his time studying art at Dickinson College in central PA) who takes months to finish a song and years to finish an album. Think about the way his subsequent releases have opened: “Best Night” from Slave Ambient still is a bit off-kilter, with the drum machine beginning at one rhythm and then suddenly scooting up a few BPM as a sudden blast of bass overtakes the speakers — from there, it glides elegantly as layers of guitar and piano build and swell beautifully. Lost In The Dream‘s “Under The Pressure” is a masterwork, with a crisp beat treated in delay gliding and guiding tentative chords into a snare drum hit and that indelible incredible ascending melody that makes the song’s lead. “Up All Night” from last year’s Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding wastes no time on the buildup, with the phasing static drone that makes up the song’s underbelly hitting your ears first, immediately followed by the graceful tom drum roll and a progression of tones that at this point we’ve come to know as War On Drugs-ian.
The Adam Granduciel of today knows what kinds of worlds he wants his listeners to get lost in; he knows how to construct them to optimal effect and maximum appeal, without stray details or clashing elements. The Adam Granduciel of 2008 was 29 years old, and not overly concerned with things like repeated effect and mass appeal. His interests at the time were sonic exploration and discovery. He was running on instinct. In the case of “Arms Like Boulders,” that instinct told him that the batch of sound leading into the song — likely comprised of elements from previous songs and previous takes, left over in the analog recording process — sounded kind of interesting, and unusual, and that he should leave it in. It’s inexact, the Adam of today might see it as a mistake, but in retrospect, it’s actually kind of perfect.
Returning to Wagonwheel Blues (originally released via Secretly Canadian Records on June 19th, 2008), we see a band bravely putting its work out there in its rawest, purest form. It doesn’t sound like an album that’s overthought or over-worked, as though the multi-instrumental Granduciel and his collaborators at the time — Dave Harltey playing bass on “Boulders,” Kyle Lloyd playing drums on “Boulders” and “No Urgency,” Paul Cobb drumming on “Taking The Farm,” and founding member Kurt Vile playing guitar on various tracks — just got together in the studio and jammed, without second-guessing themselves. They didn’t think it at all odd that the album was sequenced so the drifting, dreamlike instrumental “Coast Reprise” landed a full 20 minutes before the song that it was a reprise of. They owned their adoration for Dylan (the marching “Buenos Aires Beach” and Granduciel’s stately vocal delivery) as well as Springsteen (“Taking The Farm” and the point at the 1:50 mark where a quick “woo-hoo-hoo” hook gives way to a driving riff with a “HEY”), wearing their influences on their sleeves rather than trying to hide or deflect them.
On the lyrical front, Wagonwheel Blues finds Granduciel at his most freewheeling and mystical. Throughout his career, he’s tended to use words the way he uses his guitars: as tone-generators, as a means to set a mood or create a feeling, rather than the highly specific and traditional “this is a song about X” approach. That’s not to say the words are secondary or meaningless, but rather they are written at a level that multiple meanings can be ascribed to them. But as he’s become more deliberate and refined of a composer over the years, he’s done the same as a lyricist. The Adam of today would likely not roll with the line “Chasing squirrels around your property / Making sure that they know that this is your kingdom.” Not that it’s a bad lyric, by any means, but it’s a quirky head-scratcher that can only come from the pure expression approach, the first-thought/best-thought mindset. That line is one of a couple in “Arms Like Boulders” that really grab me; try also the opening image of realizing “that planets are spheres with oil on the inside.” Coming as this album did at the tail end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was criticized as a war fought for U.S. oil industry interests, this might be the closest thing to a political statement that Granduciel has made…though it also seems to be about bigger picture epiphanies and powerlessness.
Images of nature are all over Wagonwheel — the restless “you can feel it in the ozone zone” on “Taking the Farm”; the pictorial “How you could hear the ocean, but you could not see the breeze” from “Buenos Aires Beach”; the ominous “I put a bounty on a mountain range” in “Needle In Your Eye #16.” There are also trains and cars, highways, traveling companions, the proverbial “coast” and discussion of getting there — whether it be the physical location in California, or the more esoteric state of mind. The overarching theme seems to be the clash between unspoiled habitats and encroaching modernity, and the way to best navigate them as a human person in the 21st century. Or maybe that’s not it at all; like I said, Granduciel’s words favor the ambiguous. That said, this lyric in “Show Me The Coast” is telling:
Everything you touch is taking the road
And it’s alright to hit it on time, yeah
You can make it on your own, yeah
Make it on your own tonight
Not too long after this line is sung, five minutes of interlocked, chiming guitar parts stretch the song out into an extended meditative state. This isn’t a piece of music where one instrumentalist is taking the lead with ostentatious soloing, a show of virtuosity from a would-be guitar god. Rather, the instruments overdubbed by Granduciel and Vile (under the guidance of engineer Jeff Zeigler, who recorded and mixed that track and would go on to work on all the band’s albums) function as a single entity, meditating and repeating this musical koan, slightly modifying tiny bits of it as the song moves on, but keeping the focus grounded and reflective.
At the end of the ten-minute piece, we hear a gasp and an elated voice scream “WOOOO!” It’s Vile’s voice, after finishing his 12-string guitar overdub. But in a sense, it’s Granduciel’s as well. It’s the cry of a creative spirit that knows that, sure, with more time and experience, more resources, more instruments and equipment, they could go on to create bigger and better things, to reach more listeners and achieve greater accomplishments both artistic and personal. The voice knows they are at the beginning of something special, but they also know that there is something uniquely special about being at the beginning — the point when the rules have not been explicitly written, the cement is still wet, and there are myriad untouched avenues to explore.