Every instrument in the War on Drugs’ music has its assignment, no matter the song. (Though, interestingly, no member of the band is resigned to a specific instrument.) The drums are metronomic—no frills, no fills. The keyboards drone. The “No Rain”-inspired lead guitar solos and solos and solos. Despite (or because of) their rigidly defined roles, none of these elements are at the forefront of Slave Ambient. Rather, it's the rootsy presence of leader Adam Granduciel, whose Americana attitude meshes with the lite psyche of the rest of the band way more seamlessly than it has any right to. This whole record is pure chocolate and peanut butter—too down home to be Talk Talk, too monochromatic to be Wilco.
The whole record is equal parts familiar and inspired. In this age of washed out indie-ambient acts, it’s a wonder that the band is able to balance the two elements of its sound so deftly. Granduciel’s voice is high in the mix, not doused in (too much) reverb; his words are intelligible, his personality is anything but effaced. I’m reminded more of Tom Petty or Mark Knopfler than Kevin Shields or Panda Bear. (That I find this refreshing is, I think, an indictment of rock music in 2011/12.)
No, seriously, enough with all the comparisons to other bands. Slave Ambient is a good record. I was unmoved by it on the first few listens but have nevertheless been induced to return to it over and over. It's a repetitive listen—the rhythms are steady within the space of each track, there are few choruses, no breakdowns. The songs become part of a larger tapestry; the dynamics are found not from verse to verse but song to song.
The reckoning point of the album comes at the middle. This is where you know whether or not you’re on board with the War on Drugs or not. It starts with the locomotive “Your Love is Calling My Name,” which melts into the languid instrumental “The Animator” and then ascends to the almost-anthemic “Come to the City,” finally ending with the brief comedown of “Come for It.” The string of songs boosts Slave Ambient to another plane. I hesitate to say it’s epic—so much about this record is level, not grand; numb, not raw—but it belies a sense of purpose to these songs. Granduciel is not just enshrouding himself in mood and calling it art. He’s making music.