The sound of The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs is an American alternative band that formed in Philadelphia in 2005. The single, “Holding On” is from their forthcoming album, “A Deeper Understanding” due out Aug. 25, 2017.The song is essentially emotional torment set to the pulsing jumble of guitar, keyboards and drums. This song is ambient in an unconventional way, a way that rocks, but not too hard. In some ways, this is shoegazing music. While the bulk of the instrumentation pushes ahead in a bubble of sound, there is that occasional guitar riff that sounds like the trajectory of a stray shooting star, veering from the main course of the song, only to be re-absorbed into the multi-faceted cosmos of alternative jangle pop.
The song moves, of course. The keyboards’ high notes are augmented by the energetic twinkling of a glockenspiel. At the en,d a guitar mimics, or echoes, the singer’s repeated syllable that closes out the song. The result is an example of new alternative music that seems to have more in common with the genre’s past than its contemporary existence.
Maybe that is the thing with alternative music. Some people are still trying to figure out what it means. Once upon a time, it did mean having a certain “sound.” A development that was inevitable, given that art encourages imitation before innovation, and thus, one alternative band’s signature sound, is an up and coming band’s signal to sound “like that” so that audiences would know they were alternative.
The War on Drugs and alt music history
To truly explain why alternative music functions the way it does requires a book-length treatise. Without that, alternative music is largely thought to be without gimmick, gender stratification or pretense. The lyrics tend to be less upbeat than Top 40 pop. The word “atmospheric” comes to mind. That is the short answer.
This matters because of what The War on Drugs is doing with this song. With their classic alternative soundscape, The War on Drugs provides the perfect platform on which to build a song about heartbroken nostalgia without a “Baby, I miss you!” in any of the lyrics. Without a strict traditional narrative, the song is more open-ended. Most commonly in songs, people try to hold on to failing relationships with each other, but dreams could be held onto for longer than is healthy. Or any number of things. The specifics don’t matter; the idea does. Which is why if a person were to make a comparison, alternative music is like abstract impressionism and mainstream music is realism.
As “Holding On” played, the encyclopedia of musical chords in my head began to cross-reference with other works with chords that could have been the logical progression of the ones found in this song, or that shared the same tone quality. What it came up with was The Plimsouls’ “A Million Miles Away” and “More Than This” by Roxy Music. The latter more for the guitar quality than anything else.
The War on Drugs presents lyrics that are forthright and artful on “Holding On.” The instrumentation marks the work as clearly alternative. Listening to this song will teach audiences what alternative has meant in the past, and perhaps give them a glimpse of the genre’s future.