The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding and Unlikely Protest Art in the Age of Trump

Some of the year’s best work calls for what’s become a rarity: empathy

Image courtesy of Atlantic Records.

Last December a former student of mine, home from college for winter break, stopped by my office, eager to talk about a connection he had made to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which I had lent him a few months earlier. “Under Reagan there was so much great music, used as protest,” he said. “Do you think that will happen again, under Trump?”

I said it was a good question, but mentioned that I would gladly take four years of apolitical, inoffensive records if that meant we’d have someone else in the Oval Office. But since the inauguration, I’ve heard some form of that question several times. The simple answer, I think, has been a resounding yes. In fact, it’s hard not to read any art — especially such a direct and easily digestible form as pop music — as some sort of comment on this peculiar, absurd, and terrifying moment in time.

“Lust,” from this year’s fantastic DAMN., articulates the frustration and disappointment following the 2016 election.

What are commonly pointed to as contemporary protest songs are adversarial, urgent, necessary tracks, like Kendrick Lamar’s “Lust,” or Sheer Mag’s “Expect the Bayonet,” or Margo Price’s “All American Made.” And while I enjoy these songs, they often wear me out. It’s the same as the exhaustion I feel reading reports about DACA, seeing the most recent most incendiary tweet, or hearing about the latest white nationalist rally, and so on and so on. It’s important to be informed, obviously. It’s important to stay angry. But at some point, I need a little more from my art that righteous indignation. I need a little less “Masters of War” and a little more “What’s Going On?” I need the possibility, as pacifying or as improbable as it may seem, of transcendence.

As more than a few writers have noted, at his core, Trump’s most glaring flaw is his lack of empathy. While some suggest that he simply disregards political correctness or ‘tells it like it is,’ he began his campaign on the premise of willfully refusing to consider the humanity of others. In the months since he’s been inaugurated, I’ve come to realize that I was especially drawn to art that relied on empathy, likely in a subconscious attempt to fight back against its absence in everyday’s news. I think I was trying to convince myself that, at some point, reality would come back to its senses.

It wasn’t hard to find that in some of the year’s most talked about narratives. George Saunders’s debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo is told by a litany of spirits who occupy the graveyard the sixteenth president visits in the middle of the night to grieve the recent death of his young son, Willie. Saunders peppers the narrative — which is written entirely as dialogue — with primary and secondary sources, both real and imagined, about the president to illustrate how short they fall of accurately describing the man. The spirits, however, are eventually able to enter his being and thereby acutely understand his pain and suffering. In the process, they also begin to better understand their own conditions. In non-fiction, S-Town’s engrossing seven podcast “chapters” play out like an intricately crafted southern gothic novel, replete with medical deformities, backwoods deals, and the grotesque. But more than anything, it painted a heartfelt, complex portrait of a man struggling with his homosexuality in the limitations of his small town, offering a nuanced look at a life in Trump country.

But when it came to music, I felt lost. It seemed that anything remotely political was explicitly pointed and everything else felt tone-deaf for the current moment. When I finally did find an album that struck the balance, I wasn’t expecting it to be from The War on Drugs, a band that I had never seen described as political, even in spite of all of the Springsteen comparisons.

Last January, just a few days before Trump’s inauguration, Noisey published an interview with Adam Granduciel entitled “The Political Rantings of War on Drugs.” The title was mostly a clickbait misnomer, though something Granduciel mentioned struck me. When asked if his band’s name had any real significance, he replied, “The actual war on drugs is such a stupid thing; it’s such a stupid American thing. We’re an American band playing American music — it’s an American issue. It all seems to fit.”

Granduciel’s expression that American music and American issues are inherently intertwined is something I’ve always held to be true. Pop music — even when it’s not overtly intent on “protest” — acts as a national barometer, especially in retrospect. That’s not to say that A Deeper Understanding is an allegory about the American spirit; Granduciel’s lyrics still grapple with personal loss and anxieties, topics he also dealt with on 2014’s breakout Lost in the Dream. But where Lost in the Dream focused on an individual looking to find the inner-strength to overcome, A Deeper Understanding reaches outward. Even the respective album covers are telling: Lost in the Dream’s features a hazy Granduciel, head turned away from the camera, staring out of a window. On the front of A Deeper Understanding it’s Granduciel again, this time in the studio in front of a piano, staring directly at the photographer.

Lyrically, songs like “Up All Night,” “Pain,” “Holding On,” and the sprawling centerpiece of the record “Thinking of a Place,” all wade through darkness and disappointment, but they’re also all directed towards another person — someone who can provide a way out. They suggest that the world is not too much, so long as someone else is there to help us manage it.

A Deeper Understanding isn’t a record about Trump, thankfully, but it is a record that I needed this year. Whether or not its theme was unintentional, or if I’m just projecting this onto the record for my own sanity, is unimportant. It’s an American band playing American music. It all seems to fit.