Having comprehensively set their stall out with their debut album Wagonwheel Blues, The War On Drugs have undergone some fairly radical personnel changes. Since 2008 they’ve parted ways with three members of the band, the most significant loss being Kurt Vile who has since made quite an impression with his own solo material.
Although The War On Drugs are still a band (now a three-piece), Slave Ambient is very much the vision of Adam Granduciel and what a vision it is. Where Wagonwheel Blues was a fairly straight laced homage to Americana and Rock and Roll, the band keeping its moments of abstraction in check, this time around the key to the band’s sound is contained within the title of the album. There’s still a significant debt to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, but very little about Slave Ambient is straightforward or direct. Many of the songs are blurred at the edges, or are obscured by deftly conjured desert winds and torrid sandstorms. There are moments when Slave Ambient feels like a rolling landscape populated with nothing but beautiful mirages, so hard is it to focus on the ever shifting nature of these songs.
The Future Weather EP, released in the period between Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient, hinted at where The War On Drugs were headed but as good as that EP was, Slave Ambient finds the band in full flight and determined. Baby Missiles appears in a slightly different form to that found on Future Weather. Here it’s a tightly focussed upbeat folk rock song, rattling along like an old cattle truck on rickety rails. The harmonica howls, the piano honky-tonks and Granduciel raps and hollers like Tom Petty spitting out Ginsberg poetry. It’s gloriously life affirming and as close to a stadium sized anthem as Slave Ambient comes. Brothers, another song that appeared on Future Weather, meanwhile is hazy country-rock, which despite a lack of a chorus is still marvellously affecting. The guitars twinkle and weave around Granduciel’s lethargic vocals creating an immersive sonic palette in which to get lost.
Opening song Best Night is something of a false introduction. It smoulders gently; the introspective lyrics have a Nebraska era Springsteen feel to them, whilst vocally it’s in Dylan territory again. The song itself is remarkable delicate, almost unbearably so, but essentially it is a straight-forward folk rock song, somewhat at odds with the abstract nature that creeps into what follows.
Your Love Is Calling My Name relies on propulsive backbeat to drive the shimmering guitars along. Part motorik, part beatnik it is an exercise in woozy songwriting which finds Granduciel apparently traversing an epically stoned landscape, presumably with J Spaceman as his co-pilot. Eventually it merges into the synth ambience of The Animator, a track seemingly added as a kind of relaxant which in turn feeds into Come To The City, a song that contains a vocal hook that digs deep, possesses a musical assurance that rivals Springsteen in his pomp, and has hazy sheen to everything that calls to mind the greatest achievements of My Bloody Valentine. Naturally, it is stunning.
Slave Ambient is an amazing record, but it is far from immediate as these songs take time to develop into something tangible. The album as a whole darts back and forth from keenly realised folk songs and droning jams found on the likes of Original Slave. This can make for a challenging listen, but once enveloped in the dreamy world of The War On Drugs, everything starts to make perfect sense and you never quite want to leave.