The War on Drugs are a band made up of visible mechanisms and processes, like a giant skeleton watch or widescreen MRI scan. Tonight, the band’s linchpin, singing guitarist Adam Granduciel, lurches around inside a citadel of effects pedals, long hair swinging, shirt flapping, guitar pealing in the style of Neil Young. The encore of this two-hour show climaxes in a strobing cover of Young’s Like a Hurricane, with Granduciel swinging his guitar around his head in jubilation at the close.
When he sings, however, his phrasings betray an even greater affection for Bob Dylan. And that’s before you drill down into the War on Drugs’s lyrics. Just on the title track alone of Granduciel’s latest album, 2021’s sleek, tuneful I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the singer calls himself “a creature void of form” – a quotation from Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm – then recalls when “we danced to Desolation Row”.
All that homage is as nothing, however, to the tributes paid to Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band by War on Drugs’s jubilant keyboards – played chiefly by Robbie Bennett – and Jon Natchez’s blaring saxophone; plus the 80s thwack of Charlie Hall’s drum kit (multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and Eliza Hardy Jones, and bassist Dave Hartley, complete the lineup). Granduciel’s lyrics, too, have long tussled with the darkness at the edge of self, with anxiety, lack of certainty and romantic loss played out against an American landscape of rivers and roads, memories and dreams. His firstborn is, of course, named Bruce.
To call Granduciel unoriginal, though, would be to miss the point of the War on Drugs, an experiment gone right. This band’s dad-rock dog-whistles and rock canon Easter eggs have been spectacularly effective, calling several generations to him, catapulting this scruffy guitar obsessive from tiny clubs to arenas in the space of a decade. “We played this song at [London’s 500-capacity] Corsica Studios maybe 10 years ago,” notes Granduciel at the start of the rousing Come to the City from 2011’s Slave Ambient, the record that raised his tousled, bleary head above the slacker rock parapet. He was signed by Atlantic, a major label; around the same time, producer-mogul Jimmy Iovine saw no reason why the War on Drugs could not be a “gigantic” win-win all round. Even if the nosebleed seats are curtained off tonight, this is the band’s second time at the O2 since Granduciel’s outfit won the best rock album Grammy for their 2017 album, A Deeper Understanding.
But it’s hard to imagine the affable Granduciel as some retromaniac evil genius, tenting his fingers, plotting his assault on the stadium circuit. His obsessiveness and sincerity are very much part of the allure of the War on Drugs, while his personal struggles act as a prism through which all of his influences pass. His rock is not muscular, but questioning. “Am I more than just a fool?” he wonders typically on An Ocean in Between the Waves, where the undeniable pep of the band’s rhythm section is offset by the languor of Granduciel’s guitar.
Even at arena scale, he actually leaches the bombast out of Springsteen, excises the archness of Dylan and cinches in the girth of Young’s noodling. Natchez’s sax is a rhythm instrument, rather than a lead, adding texture to the warm thrum and enveloping oscillations of this immersive band. In recompense for all those edits, Granduciel adds in a wistful haziness and a sore but beating heart, worn on a frayed sleeve.
His emotional arc could just about be squeezed into a pair of back-to-back tracks that take this gig to its climax. Under the Pressure, one of the standouts from his 2014 breakthrough album, Lost in the Dream, documents the merciless death throes of a relationship; the screens either side of the stage show Granduciel’s worn boot about to stamp on an effects pedal as the band go up to 11. Immediately after is I Don’t Live Here Anymore, in which he bids farewell to being “so afraid of everything” and embraces “a chance to be reborn”; the melody nags at you all the way home.
This is a very good show that could have been an even greater one, however. If Granduciel were to carve a musician’s version of Mount Rushmore, those granite busts of Young, Dylan and Springsteen would be joined by far less famous foreign interlopers: Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger from the German outfit Neu!, a band in whose sleek propulsion Granduciel found an obvious but inspired analogue with the freedom of the highway in American heartland rock.
He salutes Neu!’s sister outfit, Harmonia, through a song called Harmonia’s Dream, and it is inarguably the highest point in the War on Drugs set. A long run-up of blooping analogue keyboards and mesmerising lights erupts into a pulsating workout, which, over the course of many delicious minutes, combines the highway, the autobahn and the dancefloor, threatening to turn this arena rock show into a rave. It may be a European perspective, but this is the War on Drugs’ sweetest spot. It’s a shame they don’t press it till it’s sore.