In the era of digital media, pop culture and its history is more cataloged than it has ever been. Virtually every significant film, album, or TV show since the beginning of these mediums are conveniently archived on one of a few streaming services or digital marketplaces. As such, our view of popular culture is slowly shifting from a linear view—where every era is distinct from the one before—to a view that’s more circular and fluid. One major indicator of this is the role nostalgia has played in much of our cultural spaces; here in the age of the reboot, where film franchises never end and our biggest pop culture touch points strongly resemble works of decades past (see Stranger Things), nostalgia is a cultural dialect.
A Deeper Understanding, the third full-length album from the Philadelphia band The War on Drugs, speaks the dialect of nostalgia. The album’s 10 songs bring to mind the heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or the recently deceased Tom Petty, with drums, rhythm guitar, and bass providing a heartbeat that is set free by dreamy synthesizers and soaring guitar solos.
This is music rooted in sentiment and time-stamped somewhere near the wistful decade of the 1980s—a time where many of the most resonant films focused on stories of teenagers navigating adolescence, seeking to grow up without conforming to a drab adult life. From its music to its title, A Deeper Understanding seems a fitting soundtrack for such a movie—if listeners close their eyes they might just see a car cruising just outside a small town, its driver finding release and freedom under a night sky.
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Have we run out of things to say? Are we avoiding our present by escaping into the past? Maybe so. But while the line between helpful and harmful may be thin—and crossed often—I think our penchant for nostalgia comes from a place of righteous yearning; like the teenage protagonist in a beloved 1980s film, we believe that more can be achieved than our present existence offers. In creating an ideal out of the past, we project a little bit of heaven onto earth.
The mistake would be in believing the past actually was heaven. The War on Drugs avoids this temptation. The function of A Deeper Understanding’s nostalgia is this: to create a familiar world in borrowed aesthetics from foregone eras before pushing that world past its limits and into something more magnificent and untamable. (Atlantic)