A guitar screams and howls as a solo reaches the peak of its crescendo. The rest of the band respond by playing with even greater intensity. As the music soars and shimmers, the crowd respond with a roar. Hands are in the air, fists are pumping. At the front, there’s a surge of bodies. Lights blaze.
Live pop music in many parts of the world has been largely shut down since March. For those of us who are fans, it’s moments like this that we miss: immersive, electrifying, physical. There’s been no lack of recorded output during the pandemic, and some artists have streamed live performances; there have even been actual small-scale gigs. But nothing compares to the overwhelming, deafening experience of seeing a great band at the peak of their powers in a packed house.
Live albums seldom convey this experience. With a handful of exceptions — Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, The Who’s Live at Leeds, Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong, The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! — they tend to be contractual-obligation affairs.
But now here comes Live Drugs, a new album from Philadelphia six-piece The War on Drugs that serves as a reminder of what live albums can be, and of what live music can be. The band’s studio albums have tended to be fine and dandy, but Live Drugs captures the raw intensity of their shows. It’s a humdinger.
The War on Drugs are a band whose music oscillates between indie and mainstream: at times, with their epic widescreen sound with splashes of piano and honking saxophone, they sound like Bruce Springsteen; at times, with their mesmeric, metronomic beats, they resemble a krautrock band. Though it is drawn from many hours of recordings from different shows, this album follows an “arc” shaped to mirror a compact set list of around 70 minutes.
The opening track, “An Ocean in Between the Waves”, sets out their template: a steady up-tempo beat comes from a drum machine, guitars wash and drift, singer, lead guitarist and frontman Adam Granduciel sings the Springsteen-esque opening lines: “Run away, I’m a travelling man, been working every day” (he’s not a great singer, but that doesn’t matter: it’s about the whole sound of the thing). It’s two and a half minutes before the drummer joins in and the track takes off, surging and urgent. The track is more than seven minutes long, and even then it seems to end too soon. It’s one of several songs that clock in at lengths that seem extravagant by today’s standards — “Thinking of a Place” (10.37), “Under the Pressure” (11.59) — but in the hypnotic sound-world created by The War on Drugs, it seems entirely natural. Granduciel solos fluently, but without being showy: emotional, rather than technical.
Live albums have a tendency to relegate crowd noise to a distant roar, but here the fans are allowed to play their part, hollering when “Buenos Aires Beach” starts to gain momentum, singing along to the guitar part on “Under the Pressure”. It’s terrific, and tantalising.
‘Live Drugs’ is released by Super High Quality Records