Wagonwheel Blues, the debut record of Philadelphia indie band The War On Drugs, turns ten years old today. At the time, the album was a project started by four relatively unknown musicians. One of those artists was current The War On Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel. Another was Kurt Vile, who left the band after Wagonwheel Blues was released to pursue his own career as a songwriter. It now stands as an incredible band’s first music.
There is an excellent article on WXPN’s The Key that celebrates the album. It spends considerable time examining the “non-sequitur patchwork of sounds” in the first two seconds of the record. The WXPN headline also characterizes the LP as “perfect imperfection,” an accurate description of the raw production and ingenuity employed in Wagonwheel Blues.
The band has since gone on to more elevated levels of musicianship. The War On Drugs are now one of the most popular indie bands in the world, but they did not reached those heights by using the same production present in Wagonwheel Blues.
Today I listened to Wagonwheel Blues for the first time in a while. Those two seconds stand out as being something so much more meaningful than when I first heard them.
I first began listening to The War On Drugs after their second album, Slave Ambient. At the time I had no idea that The War On Drugs would go on to become one of my favorite bands. When I went back and listened to the debut it did not resonant with me as much as their sophomore effort did. I still value Slave Ambient as my initiation with the band, although I have appreciated Wagonwheel Blues more over time. The album is a wonderful snapshot of a band in its early stages and a reminder of how musicians can evolve.
This constant progression in sound is evident as The War On Drugs releases each record. There is an increasing maturation of the band’s abilities that makes each new release more intoxicating than the last.
Wagonwheel Blues sounds like it was conceived in a garage. Slave Ambient contains shades of Wagonwheel Blues, but the record is closer to being a proper studio album than its predecessor. 2014’s Lost In The Dream reveals a significantly more sophisticated approach. Their most recent record, A Deeper Understanding, is The War On Drugs most dynamic album to date.
Even though Adam Granduciel may have always had a bold vision for his music, it was not apparent when I first heard Wagonwheel Blues. It is hard to believe that early songs like “Show Me The Coast” and “A Needle In Your Eye #16” wound up on the same discography as later pieces like “Under The Pressure” and “Thinking Of A Place.”
As a fan of The War On Drugs, this change in style has been amazing to take in. Each release has been exciting. We are hearing something different each time. It all started with Wagonwheel Blues and I am along for whatever sonic ride Adam Granduciel’s band will take me.
The War On Drugs play “Arms Like Boulders” from Wagonwheel Blues on Austin City Limits in 2015: