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The War on Drugs Can’t Stop Searching for Answers in the Music

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The first time Adam Granduciel hinted at a possible career change, he tossed it off as a humorous aside. “Basically my whole family are educators,” he said in a video interview last month from his Los Angeles home. “Perhaps it is also my destiny. Who knows?”

The second time — a week later, calling from a parked car outside the warehouse where he had been rehearsing with his bandmates — he dug deeper. Casually dressed in a black tee and backward cap, squinting into the California sunshine, he wearily, ambivalently talked through some recent misgivings about his life as a working musician: “I just wonder, how many more records am I going to make? Like, is this the last record?” It was a thought exercise more than a declaration of intent, but striking to hear from a presumed lifer at the top of his game.

By conventional measures, Granduciel — the 42-year-old frontman and primary creative force behind the War on Drugs, a once-scrappy indie band that he started in Philadelphia in 2005 — is a modern-day rock star. During a period in which rock has shifted toward the margins of popular music, his group has reached improbable heights with meticulously crafted, guitar-forward songs, over time trading their textural, rootsy soundscapes for something more structured and straight-ahead. In the process, it’s landed multiple records in the top quarter of the Billboard 200, signed to a major label and won a Grammy, for the 2017 album “A Deeper Understanding.” Come January, the band will headline Madison Square Garden — these days, a privilege largely reserved for pop singers and legacy acts.

Considering that upcoming notch in his belt, a bemused Granduciel invoked fate: “Even from early on, people would always say that our music belonged in bigger places. So that’s like, the ultimate big place.”

But for all his achievements, Granduciel remains far more motivated by his craft than by external validation. A notoriously obsessive creative, he’s keener to tinker in the privacy of the studio than to bask in the spotlight. And lately, he’s been preoccupied by something even more important than music-making: his 2-year-old son, Bruce.

Hence, the misgivings. “My dad was pretty much home every day. He’d go to work and come home, and I would like to deliver that same consistency,” Granduciel said. He’s been thinking about how to balance the obligations of parenting with the demands of making records and touring. Bruce’s car seat was visible in the Zoom frame as his father wondered aloud, “What am I going to pass down?”

The topic of inheritance surfaces on the War on Drugs’ fifth album, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” due Oct. 29. “Workin’ my whole life/To follow my father’s dream/Then watch it fade away,” Granduciel sings on “Old Skin,” a somber piano ballad that U-turns into a full-band stomper, adding oomph to the singer’s existential musings. He picks the thread back up on the winding “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes,” singing about filial bonds and the passage of time.

Like his previous albums, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” makes legible Granduciel’s love for 1970s and ’80s rock — the searching, synth-varnished sort made by his heroes Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan — though his ambitions are far bigger than merely evoking his influences, and he chafes at the suggestion that his music is “retro.”

“He’s using elements of nostalgia to create a very emotional type of music,” said Shawn Everett, who co-produced the record alongside Granduciel after earning his trust as a recording engineer on “A Deeper Understanding.”

“I think I need this life to actually be content,” Granduciel said.Credit…Magdalena Wosinska for The New York Times

The emotional contours of Granduciel’s music have become clearer as his songwriting, over the years, has grown more direct and accessible. As on previous records, strife is etched into the lyrics — but now, with Granduciel’s voice summoned to the front of the mix, it’s more resonant. He still leans heavily on a few preferred signifiers — roads, rivers, wind, darkness — but deploys a more conspicuous first person and draws more readily from personal experience than he did early on in the band’s career.

“I tend to write from the place that gives me the most inspiration, which is just feeling melancholy,” Granduciel said, noting his lifelong struggle with depression. “For the most part, I’m still in the process of learning how to be happy.”

“I Don’t Live Here Anymore” is not, however, an album of downers. “Harmonia’s Dream,” named for the cult-favorite krautrock group, hurtles like a flat-out race against self-doubt (“Am I losing my faith?/We’re gonna lose it in time!”). And with its seismic chorus, booming percussion, gospel-y harmonies and life-affirming thesis, the title track has the makings of one achievement that the band has not yet nabbed: a hit single.

“It’s kind of a pop song,” noted Jess Wolfe of the folk-pop group Lucius in a phone call from Nashville. Along with her bandmate Holly Laessig, she sang backup on the track. “I remember feeling like it was ringing in my head for days” after leaving the studio, she added.

Baby Bruce (named for Springsteen) had a profound impact on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” logistically as well as thematically. While working on previous records, Granduciel sometimes languished in the studio into the small hours of the morning. During sessions after his son was born, he made a point of being home for 5 p.m. bath time, and tried to wrap up work by 9 or 10 to be fresh for the morning parenting shift. He grinned while describing his daily routine with Bruce: They sit together on the stoop, he drinks coffee and Bruce has his breakfast.

If that sounds like the antithesis of a rock-star lifestyle, Granduciel doesn’t mind. He feels “zero connection” to fame, and emphasized the normalcy and anonymity of his day-to-day life. Still, Granduciel’s proximity to celebrity was apparent when, in the week in between our conversations, he briefly became a tabloid item amid reports that he and Bruce’s mother, the actress Krysten Ritter, had split. (He denied these and declined to elaborate.)

Cutting back on studio time made Granduciel fear that he wasn’t “going deep” enough on the record. It helped that he could compare notes with Everett, also a new father, and a fellow workhorse whom he initially sought out after reading about the “extreme recording techniques” (Everett’s description) that he used while making “Sound & Color,” Alabama Shakes’ album from 2015.

Throughout our conversations, Granduciel — seemingly aware of his reputation as a sovereign bandleader, and perhaps eager to decenter himself — pointedly called out the contributions of his various collaborators. Robbie Bennett, who has played piano with the band since 2010, wrote the hook for “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”; Anthony LaMarca, who plays guitar in the touring lineup, was responsible for “iconic drum fills” that gave the record’s earliest demos body. Remote recording, necessitated by the pandemic, allowed Granduciel’s bandmates to work and brainstorm on their own schedules, producing what he called “spirited” results.

Though increasingly comfortable with his leadership skills, Granduciel seems uninterested in climbing past middle management. He has a record label of his own — Super High Quality Records, on which he released a live album last year — but no plans to use it for anything other than one-off side projects. “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” fulfills his two-record contract with Atlantic, and while he hasn’t re-signed with the label yet, he would if asked. “I’ve always been a good employee,” he said. “I don’t really have an interest in being the record-maker and the business all in one.”

And despite Granduciel’s musings on setting his guitar down and walking away, he said he feels called to the music: “I think I need this life to actually be content.”

He turned, as he often does, to one of his rock forebears. “It’s like Robbie Robertson said,” he said, quoting the Band’s frontman. “‘It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.’”

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