“I’m just drifting,” Adam Granduciel sings through the reverb on “Come to the City,” which arrives halfway through the War on Drugs’ first new album in almost four years. He’s only telling half the truth. The Philadelphia-based creators of ambient roots-rock took a long time following up their 2008 debut LP Wagonwheel Blues, but it wasn’t because they were listless; it was because co-founder Kurt Vile struck out on his own, recruiting Granduciel for his backing band, the Violators. While the 12 songs on Slave Ambient indeed have droning, meandering qualities, the hypnotic effects merely soften the album’s working-class muscle and sharp hooks.
Much like Deerhunter’s 2007 Cryptograms, Slave Ambient oscillates between sun-burnt psych-pop bliss-outs and disorienting instrumental interludes. Unlike most bands in the avant-garde mold, however, the War on Drugs have in Granduciel a vocalist whose throaty burr rambles casually in the all-American tradition of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Songs like “Baby Missiles,” re-recorded here after an appearance on last year’s Future Weather EP, boast the bombastic organs, stirring drums and passionate shouts of potential live show-stoppers, but they’re cut nicely with the mellow reverb and uncanny production textures. Vile may be gone, but his former band is hardly directionless. As Granduciel observes on jangling road anthem “Brothers”, “I’m rising in to the top of the line.”