Celebration Rock, Japandroids’ second album, was one of those rare indie rock records to get canonised almost immediately for its vivid descriptions of the transformative powers of rock wrapped up in eight of the catchiest songs going. Like some of the great songwriters the band have been favourably compared with, Bruce Springsteen is always the one looming large in my mind while listening to them, Japandroids manage to extract a lyrical romanticism and myth from the mundanities of everyday existence the people listening would identify with. Working mediocre jobs, dreaming big but never quite getting it together to act on those ambitions and, most importantly, drinking with friends and passionately shouting along to rock music. Their lyrics are full of images of kinetic energy: fire, sparks and explosions frequently describe landscapes and life experiences in equal measure.
If encountered at the right point in your life, Japandroids are the kind of band that can take the frustrations of your existence and turn it into the feeling you are living out some tragic but epic novel. In theory anyway. Personally, I never felt Japandroids reflect my own interiority and life back at me as poetry in the same way a band like Titus Andronicus are able to, and who are an all around much darker and funnier band. But that doesn’t mean a Japandroids record can’t be a huge amount of fun.
After being absent for nearly half a decade, the duo are back and on first impressions, it looks to be business as usual: eight tracks and a black and white photo of the band on the cover is consistent with the aesthetic they’ve established so far. The opening title track is sonically consistent to what we’ve heard so far, with anthemtic group chants and Brian King recollecting desires that “Got me all fired up to go far away”. But from the second track onwards, there’s a conscious effort to expand their palette, although in aid of reaching the same desired effect. The band have always been noted for their skill in using their minimal set up of guitar, drums and vocals to create something that feels immensely expansive and widescreen. The new sounds on Near to the Wild Heart of Life all attempt to try and push those edges as far as possible in order to offer a full 360 degree panoramic view. But there is also a new topic added to the Japandroids canon. Love. Tracks such as ‘I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)’ suggest a new version of Japandroids that isn’t just one big homosocial love-in. Like a group of guys with their arms round each other’s shoulders jumping up and down in unison.
‘Arc of Bar’, the album’s gargantuan seven minute long centre piece brings an arena sized synth riff and its seemingly endless string of verses are probably the most lyrically ambitious attempt made by the band to date. Loaded with symbolist imagery and storytelling right out of the Dylan playbook, right down to using the faces from playing cards as character archetypes, the song is a long rambling affair that chooses a less firey, direct route that you might expect from the band. There are moments however, that slip into corniness and cliché. Maybe they were always there but were less notable because the band refused to let up on the gas pedal to give you a chance to take it all in. Overall, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is generally much slower in tempo than its two predecessors are.
Without that fire, Near to the Wild Heart of Life lacks the urgency of those first two records. while Post-Nothing documented a band on the verge of throwing the towel in after getting nowhere and Celebration Rock dealt with the enormity of realising maybe their dreams might finally becoming true, Near to the Wild Heart of Life has nowhere left to go, so it just keeps speeding along that highway, with no final destination in sight. If there is one, it’s not to challenge or face the world but to retreat from it. ‘North East South West’ is an ode to their birthplace of Canada as always being somewhere they can return to after the crazy life of touring, while ‘Midnight to Morning’ essentially does the same trick but replaces Canada with a woman. The album’s closer ‘In a Body Like a Grave’ is also weirdly resigned in tone. Documenting the hardships many people will have to go through, the band conclusion the band come to that it’s “Just the way it is / the way it’s always been” which feels oddly deflated for a band whose bread and butter is offering a feeling of affirmation and empowerment to their fans. If Japandroids have chosen to simply lie down and roll over, what hope is there for the rest of us?